The Sunday Post
Desolate and lifeless rural economies are a challenge for many African countries.
No wonder we either put up with such a situation or do what little we can to at least feed our country folk.
However, over the years, not only do the rural areas remain poor, but young people move to the cities and towns in search of a better standard of living.
The Zimbabwean government’s drive to transform rural livelihoods is highly commendable.
The success of the program depends in large part on a radical mental shift in government institutions in the way they perceive and respond to the challenges of rural development.
History has shown us that simply digging a new dam, borehole, or even a nutritional garden is not enough.
Since independence, the government has invested heavily in building new dams and supporting rural communities with agricultural inputs.
Results so far indicate that few communities have made the transition from poverty to successful farmers and entrepreneurs.
We need to change the structure of rural development.
The starting point is the realization that the rural population knows what needs to be done.
In most cases, they need better access to markets and support in various desired areas.
The Agricultural Marketing Authority (AMA) appears to have discovered the key to creating value in rural communities that depend largely on livestock but have failed to secure markets for their livestock.
For the first time in many years, AMA held Zimbabwe’s first open cattle market in the Mpalawani region, which borders the Midlands and Matabeleland South provinces.
Administratively part of Insiza District, the area faces many development obstacles despite being surrounded by leading companies such as Unki, Mimosa, Murowa Diamonds, Zimasco and Palawani Lakeworld Resort.
The administrative center is around 150 kilometers away, which poses many challenges.
To make matters worse, part of the Midlands community is giving allegiance while the other joins Matabeleland South.
The chiefs in Mpalawani are also divided on the basis of the two provinces. At some point, a presidential commission was appointed to look into the issue, and recommendations have yet to be released.
It’s no wonder that communities in Mpalawani have long been given the wrong end of the stick by middlemen who take advantage of their great distance from the main livestock markets to offer sub-economic prices for their livestock.
Just as well, the community eventually came together and realized that as long as the exploitative situation continued, so would their collective impoverishment.
They turned to the AMA and tried to revitalize open cattle markets that no longer existed.
The AMA, which has also transformed into a Relevant National Body, was aware of the opportunity and recognized that it had the capacity to mobilize buyers and stakeholders to ensure the anomaly was addressed.
Zimbabwe has an estimated 5.5 million cattle, most of them in rural areas. Adding other livestock species such as goats and chickens shows that the rural population is largely dependent on livestock.
With better prices and competitive markets, life in rural areas can change in an instant.
Instead of very few fugitive buyers, who had now turned cattle-rich Mpalawani into a place where they made quick fortunes by buying cattle for as little as US$ 60 cents a kg, the first auction attracted eight buyers.
A total of 137 cattle were brought in that day, over 80 of which were sold for no less than a dollar a kilo.
The result was that villagers who used to earn less than $200 per animal added another $150 this time.
It was a good start and a lesson in how simply facilitating solutions for rural communities can have long-lasting transformative power.
However, it was also clear that rural market building would not be an event, but a process requiring serious investment by a cross-section of stakeholders.
A number of ranchers who participated in the first auction were unaware of the quality of their cattle or current market prices.
Some also tried to make huge sums of money without investing in keeping their livestock in top condition.
The district council, which benefits from taxes from the open livestock markets, could have prepared better.
The measuring scale brought that day was archaic and collapsed before use.
In the end, the auctioneers resorted to traditional methods of determining the weight of the auctioned cattle with a belt.
This method not only fueled doubts among the pawns, but also dampened the mood of everyone who was at the opening market.
It was clear that for proper markets to function it was necessary to educate farmers on many of the areas needed to ensure their cattle are kept in the best condition and sold at the right time and price.
Mining companies like Mimosa and Unki are investing in raising livestock in the areas, but they need support to ensure these programmers have a commercial perspective.
The miners also need support from stakeholders to train farmers to care for donated animals.
By working together, not only do we minimize capital loss, but we are also able to ensure that the rural farmer moves from poverty to prosperity. Over time, it is possible for mining companies to start sourcing their food needs from the same farmers.
When this happens, the once derided rural area will become a place where young people dream of finding a permanent home.
Munyaradzi Hwengwere is Chairman of Buy Zimbabwe, a company promoting market access and preference for local goods and services.