Wandile Sihlobo ANALYSIS: Was Zimbabwe ever the breadbasket of Africa?

A hackneyed expression is that Zimbabwe went from the breadbasket of Africa to its basket case under long-time autocrat Robert Mugabe. But was the first part true?  

Additional reporting by Sifiso Ntombela

There is a commonly held view that Zimbabwe used to be the breadbasket of Africa, although the specific timeframe in history is usually unclear.

This vague narrative gives an impression that Zimbabwe lost its “breadbasket” status during former President Robert Mugabe’s tenure. While Mugabe’s land reform programme seemingly contributed to a decline in Zimbabwe’s agricultural output, there’s limited evidence to suggest that the country was a dominant player in Africa’s food production prior to that period – at least from a staple food production perspective.

Zim’s production never topped 10% share

A country should be able to meet its staple food consumption needs and simultaneously command a notable share in exports of the same food commodity to be considered a “food-basket”.

Looking at the production data of the key staple foods maize and wheat, Zimbabwe’s production of these commodities has never surpassed a 10% share on the continent over the past 55 years. (Note: The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations started recording African agricultural statistics in 1961.)

While that is the case, a closer look at the data paints a fuller picture.

For example, in the two decades prior to Mugabe’s leadership (1960–1980), Zimbabwe contributed an average share of 6% of Africa’s maize production, almost at par with Nigeria, but lower than Kenya’s contribution of 7%. During that period, Zimbabwe’s maize production outpaced consumption by an average 400,000 tonnes a year – making it a net exporter.

During the first half of Mugabe’s rule (1980–2000), the country’s maize production contributed a share of 5% to Africa’s output. While it was a net importer in most years, on average, the country remained a net exporter of maize, with a declining maize trade balance (the difference between a nation’s exports and imports).

The decline in Zimbabwe’s maize production and trade balance worsened following the introduction of the country’s Fast-Track Land Reform Programme in 2001.

The country’s share of maize production on the continent dwindled to an average of 2% between 2001 and 2016. During this period, Zimbabwe’s maize consumption outpaced production by an average of 550,000 tonnes per year – turning it into a net importer.

Wheat and other grain commodities present a similar trend in Zimbabwe’s contribution to Africa’s food system.

Fails to fit idea of food-basket

A woman smiles as she inspects the maize crop on a small-scale farm in Chinhamora, Zimbabwe, in February 2011. Photo: AFP/ALEXANDER JOE
A woman smiles as she inspects the maize crop on a small-scale farm in Chinhamora, Zimbabwe, in February 2011. Photo: AFP/ALEXANDER JOE

The available data, which covers three distinct phases in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector, suggests that the country was self-sufficient before and in the two decades after Mugabe came to power.

Even then, Zimbabwe’s maize and wheat output were generally modest and volatile. It wasn’t sufficient to support strong exports to the rest of the continent and world – which fails to fit the idea of a food-basket.

In the third phase, the country’s maize and wheat production significantly declined, which further weakened Zimbabwe’s standing in the continent’s food system.

Overall, we view Zimbabwe as a self-sufficient food producer prior to its land reform programme. However, there is limited evidence to support the notion of Zimbabwe having ever been “the breadbasket of Africa”.

Wandile Sihlobo is an agricultural economist at Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz). Additional reporting by Sifiso Ntombela, trade economist at Agbiz and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pretoria.

 

 

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Comment on this report

Comments 26
  1. By Paddy Mubaiwa

    Quite an impressive analysis. The only wrong fact is that you may have based this analysis on “wrong reports” that state/ suggest that Zimbabwe was once a bread basket for Africa. It was even taught in Social Studies in Primary school in Zimbabwe when I was grade 4 that Zimbabwe is the bread basket for the SADC region, mainly based on the fact that we exported maize and wheat.
    So narrowing down your analysis to the SADC region will give us a much clearer picture.

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  2. By simba

    Terms used figuratively should never be the basis for debunking a theory or rather, a widely accepted view-point. in this case that true view-point is that Zimbabwe was a fairly prosperous, self sufficient agricultural producer. Considering the country’s small size and smaller productive land, the”bread basket” tag was then apt.

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  3. By Francis Tapon

    Starting an article with “hackneyed” makes it sound like the author is not objective. I suggest that he and others who write for this site check to see how Gallup or Pew or fact check write their articles. They are very even in devoid of emotion.

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  4. By dissapointed Tuks alumni

    Sorry, but by your methodology, taking into account each country’s population size would be what, overkill? You compared zimbabwe’s agricultural output to that of Nigeria with no mention of population size. You also limited your analysis to staple foods, let alone non-edible produce like tobacco or maybe horticulture. Even if you’re right, this is just a self-affirming memo.It’s easy to support a narrow motion and rant about it, population size and the amount of arable land would also have to come into account. The sheer lack of nuance required to publish this is astounding.

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  5. By Ru

    If my geography is correct then, Nigeria and Kenya are waaaay larger than Zimbabwe and it should follow that at any given point in time they must produce far more than the little tea pot of Zimbabwe. Right?

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    • By Africa Check

      We didn’t want to use the obvious example. South Africa produced, on average, 26% of the continent’s maize output between 1961 and 2014, according to the sources cited.

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  6. By Dovi

    The notion of Zimbabwe as a “breadbasket” for Africa was a political phrase coined by the British (government and private interests) to tarnish and combat Mugabe’s policies. This should be seen and called for what it is: propaganda. Tobacco and other non-edibles did not enrich most Zimbabweans. These products were colonial leftovers serving the interests of faraway traders which were aggrieved by the land policies pursued by Mugabe. Were they right in their laments? Yes, of course! Did they give an accurate picture of the reality in defense of most ordinary people in the country? Absolutely, no!

    We must always remember that disinformation is a potent weapon in the hands of interest groups that operate in the shadows of public policy, in Zimbabwe, Britain or most other countries. These hidden groups have shaped Europe-Africa relations for the last 500 years and still do so today. Failure to identify these interests and their actions usually leads us to the wrong analysis and conclusions. Africa Check is a first, positive step in the right direction to enlighten us all.

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    • By Rudi E

      Do you understand that exports (selling local assets utilising local resources including) labour do more for a country, than foreign investment (investment from intrests outside of the country & divesting profits elsewhere)? Your political hogwash feeds less people.

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  7. By Tawanda

    When you open your article with “While Mugabe’s land reform programme seemingly contributed to a decline in Zimbabwe’s agricultural output” I dismissed it immediately. What do you mean by “seemingly” when the drop in output was dramatically steep. For instance Tobacco production fell from237 million kgs in the year 2000 (representing almost a ⅓ of the country’s exports) down to 69 million kgs in 2005. That’s a poor analysis.

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  8. By Dave Joubert

    Your graphs clearly show that Zimbabwe contributed significantly (how, of course, does one define significance) to Africa’s food production, and that this declined dramatically, especially after land invasions. Yet you argue, based on the data, that this is not the case. What rubbish!
    From about 7 % to 1 % (from your own graphs) is a decline of about 85 % (declines seem way less drastic than increases), From around 2 % (highly variable) to around 0 % represents a % decline of 95 % if we take the current figure as 0.1 % (again the decline looks way more modest than if it was an increase).
    And, of course, you did not look at any other products. Breadbasket is a term used for a country that produces a lot, not necessarily just grains. Come on, what was the motivation for this pathetic analysis?

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  9. By Mari

    I am disappointed in this analysis. It was not as objective as the other Africa Check articles I have read.
    Further it used an incorrect premise. Even former President Mugabe referred to Zimbabwe as the former regional breadbasket (according to New Zimbabwe’s article on 9 September 2017) and not of the entire continent.
    Correcting the distorted premise would have been a better start.

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  10. By Andrew

    Zimbabwe never was the “breadbasket” of Africa or even southern Africa. It even had to import vegetable oil and other agricultural products from South Africa. BUT it had a very strong agricultural sector. The article needs to bear in mind that Zimbabwe exported beef to the EU, and that most of Zimbabwe’s maize was actually grown by small-scale communal farmers. The large-scale commercial farmers increasingly turned to cash crops for export by the 1990s – tobacco, paprika, horticulture (fruit, veg and flowers for export to the EU). So although Zim was not necessarily producing food for the rest of Africa, its agricultural economy was really important and strong. And the farmers earned the country lots of foreign currency, with which it also had to import some food items, especially during droughts. So the ‘breadbasket’ claim was wrong, but this does not change the fact that as an industry, it was pretty impressive and performed among the best in Africa.

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  11. By Munya

    May u please explain the phenomenon whereby eskom is able to export electricity to other countries but does not have sufficient power to light up the whole of South Africa? I believe your stats are mainly based on production output alone but fails to realise the % exports in the periods in question. Zim’s population grew exponentially from independence at about 6 million to 12 million in the early 2000s (not factoring in the diaspora % that also grew rapidly in this period). I believe u generalised your thesis on such factors and ended up implying statistics for effect. The only stats u have are of %production output of Zimbabwe on the African continent. Zimbabwe could feed itself and was definitely a net exporter till the 2000. You should have shown export percentages to back your assertions, which I be live will reflect the ‘bread basket of Southern Africa’ not Africa notion.

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  12. By Nasdaq7

    You shouldn’t even publish this rubbish if you don’t know economics.

    Google Lonrho also ranked as the largest single producer of food in Africa

    Read more: http://www.referenceforbusiness.com/history2/9/Lonrho-Plc.html#ixzz5DGSbGAJe

    It was about the company Lonrho – LONDON / RHODESIA that was the largest single producer of food in Africa and you chased that British company away. You had all the potential to be the Walmart of Africa in terms of food production.

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  13. By Nasdaq7

    So there you have it you two economists: that saying came from the potential that Rhodesia had under the business leadership of the Lonrho company, the largest food producer in Africa at the time of Zimbabwe’s independence and the potential that black and white had together, had the black people just simply worked constructively with the white people during that time of Rhodesia and had not engaged in a winner takes everything strategy.

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  14. By Nasdaq7

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiny_Rowland

    Wikipedia Tiny Rowland

    In 1948 Tiny Rowland emigrated to Southern Rhodesia, that’s where everything started for him in Rhodesia at LonRho. He was 30 and an entrepreneur.

    That’s what the saying was all about: that Rhodesia could attract and produce such entrepreneurs like Tiny Rowland, that Rhodesia / Zimbabwe had so much potential to attract and create such quality entrepreneurs like Tiny Rowland from across the entire world.

    In 1996 President Nelson Mandela awarded Rowland the Order of Good Hope, the highest South African honour.

    He was born in India Born 27 November 1917 Calcutta, Bengal, India

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  15. By Albino African

    This article is trying to re write history. Your own data set proves that Rhodesia-not Zimbabwe was the bread basket. your whole argument is based on less than 10% output based on 2013 output (your data-which i believe to be correct) the conclusion you draw from it is incorrect. If you look at your own data maise was well in excess of “Africas”production for the time period you have listed. You also forget to add other animal husbandry exports, as well as other crops other than just the two powerful ones you list, when all of these “food” products were added up and exported and if calculated correctly, one would indeed paint a “bread basket” picture. Raw data does not allow the rewrite of the history to cover up the catastrophe that the one man one vote, mugabe rule inflicted on a nation and people, that unfortunately went well beyond its border. South Africa is Zim 2.0, its happening right before our eyes. Once the white farmer is removed the exact same affects will be felt, unfortunately, that of a powerful mineral and soil rich nation, starving and imploding on itself. Another African Failed State is on the horizon. Only facts can try to stop it before it occurs.

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  16. By Afana

    @Dovi’s asserts that tobacco and other non-edibles “… were colonial leftovers serving the interests of faraway traders which were aggrieved by the land policies pursued by Mugabe”. Wow.

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