GOKWE — After building her home in Zimbabwe, sending her children to school, and becoming the breadwinner after her husband fell ill, all from the money she earned from cotton, now Loice Dzivakwi has fallen on hard times.
Dzivakwi (61) told how after her husband Raymond Mufi was seriously injured at work, he left his job in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, and headed back home to Gokwe, an area in the Midlands province famed for cotton farming.
Even after her husband died last year at the age of 81, she continued to grow cotton, something she has done for decades on end, and had been a pillar of financial support for her husband even when he was employed.
“I built this home using money from cotton, sent my children to school using money we got from selling cotton for years,” Dzivakwi, a mother of three surviving children, said.
One of her children died three years ago.
But that is now history, as Dzivakwi and many other cotton farmers here have fallen on hard times even as they continue to grow the cash crop.
Yet Dzivakwi has to battle with the burden of looking after her three orphaned grandchildren, left by her late daughter.
Cotton prices have tumbled over the years, and that has meant that farmers, like Dzivakwi, have had to bear the brunt of bankruptcy single-handedly.
What many cotton farmers cling to is the nostalgia of the good old days, when Dzivakwi and many others boasted about making much more money from growing the crop.
A resident of the village of Mavhulele in Gokwe South, Dzivakwi said “These days, growing cotton has meant that I have to contend with lots of shortages of basic necessities at home because on top of being little, the payments meant for us as cotton farmers are taking longer to come.”
“From cotton sales, I get money to buy fertilizer, and I tell you cotton is not paying anymore,” she said.
Yet previously, Zimbabwe’s cotton, also known as white gold, had financially uplifted many villagers like Dzivakwi and their families.
Prices of the country’s cotton have changed over the years.
Before 2018, at a time when the multi-currency system was in place prior to the reintroduction of the local currency, one kilogramme of cotton was priced at US$1,42 in 2015 and US$1,51 in 2017.
With the Zimbabwean dollar now the currency of trade even for the poor cotton farmers here, in June last year, the Cabinet approved a price of US$43,94 per kg for the 2020/21 cotton marketing season, the equivalent of around US$0,43 then.
Under the arrangement, farmers were set to be paid the equivalent US$10 for every cotton bale delivered to merchants, with about 38% of the value of a 200kg cotton bale set to be paid for in cash under the arrangement, while the balance would be electronically transferred to farmers’ bank accounts.
Now, as the world commemorated World Farmers’ Day on May 14, Zimbabwe’s cotton farmers like Dzivakwi had nothing to celebrate.
Instead, they have sunken deeper and deeper into poverty, even as their fields are a “beehive” of the underpriced white gold.
In fact, some of the cotton farmers here, like Gokwe’s 67-year-old Agness Mhaka, are quitting growing the crop, citing poor returns where a kilogramme of cotton has fallen to way below US$0,50.
But others, like 46-year-old Gibson Shumba in Mwenezi, say he is farming himself all the way to poverty as he has no choice, and in the dry region where he lives, cotton is the only cash crop many can sustainably grow due to low rainfall patterns.
“If I stop growing cotton, it means I will have no alternative cash crop to grow here, even as the money I now get is meaningless. It’s better for me to get that little than nothing at all,” Shumba
Yet towards the end of last year, Agriculture minister Anxious Masuka launched the National Presidential Cotton Input and Tillage scheme, paving the way for some 400 000 households to receive inputs like cotton seeds and fertilizers from government.
But that has not changed the fortunes of many cotton farmers like Dzivakwi and Shumba.
Middlemen fuelling unfair cotton prices
For Zimbabwe’s agricultural extension officers like Denis Chingoto based in Mwenezi, a remote district in the Masvingo province, the involvement of many middlemen in buying and selling cotton has resulted in unfair prices accumulating over the years.
“You would realise that the Cotton Company of Zimbabwe (Cottco), which has the mandate to acquire the white gold from the farmers, is poorly resourced and even under judicial management, and therefore the way farmers are paid, is often very slow,” Chingoto said.
As a result, he said, “this has necessitated the rise of unscrupulous middlemen who buy cotton from farmers obviously at unfair prices and the farmers just let their crop go because of desperation.”
Paul Zacharia, the executive director for the Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union, the country’s largest farmers’ interest organisation representing over a million farming households, said payment delays were a serious cause of concern for cotton farmers here.
“Another issue that requires serious attention is about payments to farmers in exchange for their seed cotton. Upon delivery of the seed cotton to a buying point, a farmer should receive full payment, and the payment should be either in the form of cash, mobile money transfer or bank transfer,” Zacharia said.
In fact, he said, “many farmers have not been fully paid for seed cotton delivered last season, and even if they were to be paid now, the time value of money is still an issue to consider.”
As such, Zacharia said much needed to be done to help the country’s struggling cotton farmers.
“Measures must be put in place for farmers to be assisted to value-add (to improve their cotton quality) before they sell their cotton. Value-addition should start at the village level to ensure that farmers’ incomes are boosted,” he said.
Cottco, a parastatal organisation, sees nothing amiss about the crisis faced by cotton farmers.
“Farmers have been getting a very good producer price which averaged US$0,50 cents per kg over the past five years. The price was, however, increased to US$1,75 last year, way above the regional seed cotton producer prices that average US$0,20 to US$0,35,” Pious Manamike, Cottco’s managing director, said.
The crisis faced by cotton farmers here like Dzivakwi in the country’s Gokwe area has also been aggravated by payments owed to them even from last year’s cotton deliveries to buyers.
Last year alone, Zimbabwe’s cotton farmers were owed $3 billion in arrears for products delivered in the last season, despite pronouncements by Finance minister Mthuli Ncube in the 2021 National Budget that he was aware of the problem before assuring farmers that they would be paid their dues.
Meanwhile, as cotton farmers in Zimbabwe fall on hard times, cotton production here declined to an all-time low of
32 000 tonnes in 2016 from 84 000 tonnes in 2015, and 143 000 tonnes in 2014, following a decade-long spell of perceived lower prices averaging US$0,30 per kg.
But Zimbabwe cotton farmers are not alone in their battle over unfair prices for white gold.— Anadolu Agency