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Presentation of the survey

Background information

Zimbabwe is a landlocked country in the Southern Africa region with an area of over 390 000 km2. It is bordered by Zambia, Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia (Figure 1). It is situated between 15 and 22° south latitude and 26 and 34° east longitude. Climatic conditions are largely sub-tropical with one rainy season, between November and March. Rainfall reliability decreases from north to south and also from east to west. Only 37% of the country receive rainfall considered adequate for agriculture.

FIGURE 1. Location map of Zimbabwe within Southern Africa (Source: Atlas Mondial ENCARTA, Microsoft)

The country has been divided into five broad Natural Regions (NRs) in which the dominant partitioning factor is rainfall (Table 1 and Figure 2). Agricultural production patterns depend on these natural regions.

Rainfall characteristics in the five natural regions of Zimbabwe (Source: adapted from Rukuni and Eicher, 1994 pp.42)



Area (km2) % of total Rainfall Characteristics
I 7 000 2   More than 1 050 mm rainfall per year with some rain in all months.
II 58 600 15   700 - 1 050 mm rainfall per year confined to summer.
III 72 900 18   500 - 700 mm rainfall per year. Infrequent heavy rainfall. Subject to seasonal droughts.
IV 147 800 38   450 - 600 mm rainfall per year. Subject to frequent seasonal droughts.
V 104 400 27   Normally less than 500 mm rainfall per year, very erratic and unreliable. Northern Lowveld may have more rain but topography and soils are poorer.
Total 390 700 100    

Natural Region I is a specialized and diversified farming region. The region is suitable for forestry, fruit and intensive livestock production. Smallholders occupy less than 20% of the area of this region.

In Natural Region II flue-cured tobacco, maize, cotton, sugar beans and coffee can be grown. Sorghum, groundnuts, seed maize, barley and various horticultural crops are also grown. Supplementary irrigation is done for winter wheat. Animal husbandry like poultry, cattle for dairy and meat, is also practiced in. Smallholder farmers occupy only 21% of the area in this productive region.

Natural region III is a semi-intensive farming region. Smallholders occupy 39% of the area of this region. Large-scale crop production covers only 15% of the arable land and most of the land is used for extensive beef ranching. Maize dominates commercial farm production. The region is subject to periodic seasonal droughts, prolonged mid-season dry spells and unreliable starts of the rainy season. Irrigation plays an important role in sustaining crop production.

Natural regions IV and V are too dry for successful crop production without irrigation, but communal farmers have no other choice but to grow crops in these areas even without access to irrigation. Millet and sorghum are the common crops but maize is also grown. Communal farmers occupy 50% of the area of Natural Region IV and 46% of the area of Natural Region V.

The current population in Zimbabwe is about 12 million (FAOSTAT, 1999) with an estimated annual growth rate of over 3%. The annual growth in agricultural output is currently estimated at 2.5%, but fluctuates with weather conditions. Therefore, whereas in years of good rainfall the country produces enough food to feed the nation and enjoys surpluses for export, in years of drought the reverse is the case. Additionally, even in good years many households are not able to grow enough food for home consumption largely because of poverty and because of inadequate access to land. Moreover the little land they occupy is poor land in general.

Zimbabwe's economy is driven by agriculture and the majority of the rural people depend on it for their livelihood. Moreover, about 80% of the rural population live in Natural Regions III, IV and V where rainfall is erratic and unreliable, making dryland cultivation a risky venture. The success rate of rainfed agriculture in Natural Regions IV and V has been known to be in the order of one good harvest in every four to five years.

FIGURE 2. The five natural regions of Zimbabwe (Source: Derived from "Natural Regions and Provisional Farming Areas of Zimbabwe", 1:1,000,000 (Surveyor-General, 1998); Information supplied by the department of Agricultural, Technical, and Extension Services (Agritex) in Zimbabwe.

Natural regions
I Specialized and Diversified Farming Region
IIA Intensive Farming Region
IIB Intensive Farming Region
III Semi-Intensive Farming Region
V Extensive Farming Region
___70___ 70% probability of receiving more than 500 mm rainfall during the period October-April. The 70% probability isoline is based on information from the Meteorological Department as compiled by the early warning Unit for Food Security.

The Government of Zimbabwe (GOZ) has recognized the role of irrigation development as a key drought mitigation measure. Tremendous strides have been made by the government, the private sector and the donor community in the area of irrigation development since independence in 1980. It is estimated that 120 000 ha are under irrigation of which only 11% are on smallholder and out-grower schemes1 (Table 2).

Current status of irrigation development in Zimbabwe (Source: AGRITEX estimates, 1999)

Sector Area under Irrigation


As % of total area under irrigation
Large-scale 98 400 82
State Farms 8 400 7
Out-grower Schemes 2 200 2
Smallholder 11 000 9
Total 120  000 100

The development of smallholder schemes has been followed by a number of socio-economic studies during the last two decades in order to help policy makers in formulating sound policies for future development. However more studies are needed and at a regular interval since the whole process of policy formulation changes with time. The importance of socio-economic evaluation to fully equip policy makers can not be over-emphasized. This study attempts to contribute to a better understanding of the smallholder irrigation sub-sector, in order to be able to derive lessons from past experiences for the planning of future irrigation projects.

Current status of smallholder irrigation and potential for future development

The use of water from river flow, reservoir storage and deep motorized boreholes has seen the development of 187 smallholder schemes, covering an area of about 11 000 ha on communal and resettlement land. A further 2 200 ha has been developed on small-scale purchase land. This gives a total of 13 200 ha of land under smallholder irrigation in Zimbabwe.

In addition to the already existing irrigation the total potential for further irrigation development, based on the available potential water resources, is estimated to be 240 000 ha (Ministry of Lands, Agriculture and Water Development, 1994). The potential includes water available in transboundary rivers such as the Zambezi and in inland dams. Out of this potential about 90 000 ha is expected to be in the smallholder irrigation sub-sector.

In terms of management, there are three broad types of smallholder schemes: government managed, farmer managed, and jointly managed schemes. Government managed schemes are developed and maintained by the Department of Agricultural Technical and Extension Services (AGRITEX). In the new schemes, there tends to be a shift away from this practice towards farmer managed projects. Farmer managed schemes are developed by the government but owned and managed by the farmers' Irrigation Management Committees (IMCs) with minimal government interventions in terms of management. For jointly managed schemes the farmers and the government share the financial responsibility for the operation and maintenance. For such schemes the government is usually responsible for the headworks, while farmers take responsibility for the infield infrastructure.

In terms of scheme numbers, 50% of the smallholder schemes are farmer managed, 32% are government managed and 18% are jointly managed (Table 3). However, in terms of area, the government is still managing a larger hectarage, as most of the farmer-managed schemes tend to be small. The high cost of available appropriate irrigation technology is still a problem. The private sector irrigation companies were traditionally involved with the commercial sub-sector and as such they have limited know how on planning, design, construction and provision of services to the smallholders. Their company branches are limited to major city centres, which are not close enough to communal areas to provide back-up services to smallholders. Irrigation technologies in use include surface irrigation, which comprises 68% of the schemes and sprinkler irrigation, which makes up 32% of the schemes. Localized irrigation is not yet in use in this smallholder irrigation sub-sector.

Government managed, farmer managed and jointly managed smallholder irrigation schemes in Zimbabwe (Source: AGRITEX estimates, 1998)

  Total Number of irrigation schemes
Province area
Total Government
Surface irrigation Sprinkler irrigation
Matebeleland South 1 234 21 16 3 2 19 2
Masvingo 2 796 37 22 3 12 32 5
Manicaland 4 248 29 5 13 11 25 4
Midlands 695 34 13 6 15 30 4
Matebeleland North 169 8 4 4 0 8 0
Mashonaland East 378 35 0 0 35 5 30
Mashonaland Central 659 8 0 2 6 0 8
Mashonaland West 821 15 1 2 12 8 7
Total 11 000 187 61 33 93 127 60
Percentage   100 32 18 50 68 32

Problem Statement

Smallholder irrigation has been promoted since the 1930s as a means of ensuring food security as well as improving the standard of living of the rural people. A lot of studies have been carried out on the impact of such investments for a better understanding of the smallholder irrigation sub sector.

Often questions are raised about the viability of smallholder irrigation schemes such as:

This study attempts to answer some of these questions.

Objectives of the study

The broader objective of this study is to evaluate the socio-economic impact of smallholder irrigation development in Zimbabwe so as to help in formulating future policies on smallholder irrigation investment.

The specific objectives of the study, as provided by the terms of reference, are to:

Presentation of the report

The report is organized into four chapters and three annexes. Chapter 1, the presentation of the study, contains the study background, a statement of the problem and the research objectives. Chapter 2 reviews the literature and theory relevant to the study. It analyses some of the available literature on the impact of smallholder irrigation schemes, paying particular attention to food security. Chapter 3 gives the general synthesis, based on the literature review and the fieldwork. Chapter 4 summarizes the conclusions of the study and presents some recommendations.

Annex A contains the detailed descriptions of the ten selected schemes concentrating on topics highlighted in the study objectives. Annex B gives the checklist used in the gathering of data from the ten schemes studied. Annex C presents typical bye-laws or constitution found on an irrigation scheme.

1 Outgrower schemes refer to a group of individual plot holders adjacent and linked to a core estate. The outgrowers irrigate a crop independently but on behalf of the core estate. The plot holders depend on the main estate for provision of irrigation water, transport, managerial, technical and marketing services.

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