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Do you really have to stay on the land to be considered a farmer?

Do you really have to stay on the land to be considered a farmer?

There is widespread consensus that passionate farmers should stay on the land. Some of the advantages being that you can connect with your land and commodities. You can also cultivate strong relationships with fellow farmers and make prompt decisions on what needs to be done. However, an increase in the number of Africans living in the diaspora and urban centres who are now investing in agriculture, presents a new agribusiness model. The way technology is transforming communication and relationships can be extended to promote remote farming.

In Zimbabwe, people who own farms or pieces of land while also working in urban areas have been derogatorily referred to as ‘cell phone farmers’. Former white commercial farmers were able to stay on the farm almost full time because they had strong support services in the form of banks and inheritance.  On the other hand, most black guys who have moved onto farms have had to start from scratch due to lack of support services.  Those formally employed have had to hold onto their jobs as a fall-back position while also trying to finance agricultural operations.  The fact that a big number of them have succeeded in juggling formal employment and farming shows anything is possible.

Separating the business from the owner

Absentee land ownership and use has become a good example of how a business can be separated from its owner for its own good.  One can be an employee somewhere and a shareholder in his farming business at the same time. As long as the business has a strong market, the owner can just coordinate resource mobilization and implement plans.  De-linking the farm from the owner gives the business an opportunity to stand on its own legs. In fact, your presence can be a potential burden to the business.

Like any other business, you don’t have to be an expert agriculturalist to exploit opportunities in the agriculture sector.  The way you structure your farming business will make the difference.  With proper management systems and riding on ICTs you can receive real time feedback from your farming activities.  Your major role becomes that of identifying markets and relevant information for your agricultural products. If you become inseparable from your business there is high risk of total collapse when something happens to you.  The business should create its own networks just as you create your own networks.  There is an inter-section between you and your business but different spheres of influence.

A farmer in the current knowledge economy should be able to farm from anywhere just as someone can have shares in a Zambian company while staying in the United Kingdom or in South Africa. Business is no longer about physical location.  Many African business people do not stay in countries where they have invested but their businesses continue to function in their absence. Given a choice between being on the farm or on the market, in a competitive world, you would rather be on the market side from where you inform your farming business through monitoring market dynamics and advertising your products.  It is on the market where you are fighting for space. On the production side you already have land, water, livestock and other assets.  The market is where you can get income to invest in labour, appropriate transportation as well as an appreciation of standards and market calendars.  Most smallholder farmers remain in subsistence agriculture because they are stuck on the farm.  Their movement is mostly from point A to B as opposed to exploring markets C, D and other unfamiliar markets.  They only travel from Mutoko to Mbare and back.  This does not give them a wide market perspective.  On the other hand, livestock farmers only know the local abattoir or mobile cattle sales. You can’t build a viable business on such limited market knowledge.

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Leveraging networks

As an absent farmer, you can use your networks to manage your employees and introduce your managers to food chain stores and other market segments while you concentrate on following up. Your absence on the farm can positively create room for innovation.  As long as you are there, the business will behave the way you want to.  In your absence workers are forced to innovate.  Over the past few decades, most smallholder households who had a husband working in town and the wife doing agriculture in rural areas were able to lead a middle class life by taking advantage of their situation.  When visiting her husband, the wife would bring peanut butter for sale and the husband would use his networks to sell all the peanut butter for her. Income from the farming business was separated from employment wages and this went back to support farming operations.

The following tables show market activities at Lusaka-Highfield agriculture market in Harare from January to October 2015.  A significant portion of these commodities were produced through absentee land use.

Produce supplied to Lusaka – Highfiled market: January – October 2015

42 produce types were supplied to the market from January to October 2015 as shown below:

Table 1

Avocadoes Garlic Mapudzi Popcorn
Bananas Green Beans Masawu Potatoes
Butternuts Green maize Matamba Pumpkins
Cabbages Green pepper Muboora Rapoko
Carrots Groundnuts (unshelled) Mutsaviro Roundnuts
Cassava Guava Naartjies Sugar Beans
Chilli Horned cucumber Okra Sugar cane
Cow peas Leaf vegetables Onions Sweet potatoes
Cucumber Lemons Oranges Sweet reed
Dried maize Mango Peas Tomatoes
Tsubvu Yams    

Among the 42 produce types supplied, tomatoes, leaf vegetables, onions and unshelled groundnuts were the only produce types that were supplied consistently. The rest where supplied inconsistently because they are seasonal.

Graphic 1: Estimated revenue per produce class

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The vegetables class earned 90.78% of the total estimated revenue. Tubers, field crops, gourds, fruits, wild fruits and other took up 6.15%, 1.78%, 0.67%, 0.54%, 0.08% and 0.001% of the total estimated revenue respectively.

Graphic 2: Total estimated revenue share per produce class

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Graphic 3: Estimated revenue per province

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Graphic 4: District estimated revenue

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eMKambo is now  developing business models and mentorship programmes for farmers who want to farm from afar.   More information can be found below: / /

Website: /

eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

6 Responses

  • I always find emkambo vibes very very informative and full of relevant and appropriate information. Keep up the brilliant work.

  • The article “Do you really have to stay on the land to be considered a farmers” is a brilliant thought changer for today’s farm business environment. You put the arguments so well in a business like language that should not be difficult for our bankers, private sector leaders, and some government officials to grasp. It has been my argument that were it not for non-farming jobs, a good number of new farmers would not have survived farming. They have been able to finance the production without having to wait and wait for a bank to make a decision or rather never make a decision on a loan application.

    What is key is investing in sound and professional management which you give enough room to run operations.To succeed you need to ensure that they have enough resources to run the operations. When the production and marketing are done, you need to reward these key personnel appropriately. The net proceeds generated from the farm business should be reinvested in the farm after deduction and paying back with appropriate interest the financial resources from the non-farm business or employment. Having robust monitoring and performance evaluation systems is essential. Just appointing your nephew or niece or the next cheapest individual and not being able to reward them appropriately or having yourself to be the decision maker for even day or hourly operations have been the most significant sources of failure for some of the so called “cell-phone farmers”

    If one studies the history of white commercial farming, one sees that even when resident on the the farm, the farmer relied on professional managers (crop manager, livestock manager, bookkeeper, in addition to expert sales agents and agronomists or livestock specialists from service providers. A lot of the successful farmers while resident on their farms, they allowed the managers and assistants to run the farm operations.

    I look forward to the modern technology-based products you are developing as they will up the game of modern farm business management by serious so-called “cellphone farmers or appropriately farm business investors

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