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 theintroduction 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
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.