Rural Farmers In Zimbabwe Bemoan Experience With Indian “Paprika” Spice Agents
By Tichaona Jongwe
Chimanimani district is renowned for tea production, a practice that has transcend many generations. Located in the “Eastern Highlands” of Zimbabwe – the country’s richest belt of coffee, citrus and flower soil – rural farmers have thrived by growing pine, coffee, and tea leaves.
Then came “Paprika spice” agents in 2010 – and six years on, farmers are still counting the cost of lies and ruin. This story is about a development project gone wrong and the factors that contributed to its failure.
“They came from India, some South Africa, and splashing packets of Paprika spice seeds,” recounts John Moyo, a villager burdened with a $2000 debt and burnt tea fields in the eastern highlands belt.
He said that the company that brought the Paprika spice to the farmers encouraged them to abandon their tea and banana farmlands and grow the red spices for a quicker source of revenue.
“Immediately, we burnt up our ten-year-old tea bush leaves to grab the Paprika cash,” Moyo said.
With local chiefs sweetened and community leaders wowed, the Paprika agents cranked a gear up, conducted pseudo-workshops for unsuspecting villagers with what they would later regard as “miracle spice crop from India.”
“After years of receiving just eighty cents per kg from tea harvests, Paprika spice sounded like a delightful switch,” Moyo said.
Many farmers, like Moyo, burnt banana fields, razed coffee plantations to the ground, in a rush for the red Paprika spice.
Flattered by the promises made by the agents that the harvested Paprika would be shipped to India and sold for $6 per kg, the farmers scrambled to buy thousands of packets of Paprika spice seed at an inflated price of $5 each.
“I quickly sold ten goats to buy 200 packets of Paprika Spice seed in 2012,” recalls Tembi Gomo, another farmer.
But she was cautious, she said. Unlike others, she did not burn her entire tea and banana fields to make way for the magical Paprika.
For a time, field agriculture officers in the community, working with the Paprika seed agents would appear in to supervise the Paprika crop.
“This gave us a solid belief that our Paprika, on its way to India, would enrich lives and electrify rural homes,” said Moyo.
“We were overjoyed, patient, and willing to risk their little money on inputs, dreaming we will reap lump sums with just one Paprika harvest.”
With some opinion leader’s publicly endorsing the initiative, the trend spread quickly within the community.
“Influential local chiefs were praising the spices growing as a poverty buster, so Paprika popularity exploded in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands,” said explains Edwin Gwara, a tropical agriculture agronomist who has worked in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands with the Agriculture and Rural Development Agency and donor agencies.
Some of the rural farmers sold calves to hire manual laborers from neighboring Mozambique to till the Paprika spice fields for nine hours a day, he said.
The farmers went into careless optimism and snubbed tea and coffee crop factories that used to serve as their source of livelihood. Some of the tea corporations withdrew tractors and advisers, unable to match the new Paprika agents who had taken hold of the attention of rural farmers.
After six months, the Paprika crop failed massively.
“Local soils in the eastern highlands are too wet for Paprika leaves to thrive,” Gwara explained.
The farmers were shocked to see the Paprika leaves decline in output. And as the disappointment grew, the agents seemed to have disappeared into thin air.
“They collected our incomes and vanished to where? I don’t know by today. Paprika crops, wanted by no one lay rotting in the fields,” Moyo said.
Out of desperation, some farmers tried to dump the red Paprika yield on city vegetable markets, baffling vendors, and buyers who didn’t know what the Paprika was.
“We fell overhead for paprika and burnt our tea bush fields. We are in debt, giving away some of our livestock to pay foreign laborers. It will take us another eight years from today to revive our tea bush crop and earn an income,” said Moyo.
A glimmer of hope
On its part, Zimbabwe’s Tanganda Tea Company, one one of the biggest tea processors in Southern Africa, is returning, striking a new romance with the poor Paprika farmers. Tea collecting tractors are humming the dusty paths of Chimanimani again, extending credit, vetting farmers and testing soil.
“It’s painfully slow. We blame ourselves for burning our tea fields and embracing Paprika fly-by-night merchants. We were sold a dummy,” said Moyo.
The base price paid to rural tea growers in the Eastern Highlands has fallen to thirty cents per kg and farmers blighted by Paprika conmen are toiling for tea again.
“We are in burden. A big one. If we don’t replant our tea fields, food diets will fail, and our children will be thrown out of school,” explained Moyo.
But the community has not fully been cleansed of external influence preying on the rural farmers. Perhaps this is an opportunity for opinion leaders, organizations and government leaders in rural development sector to chime in and create awareness that would empower communities to understand the dangers of embracing all forms of technologies and practices that may not be suitable for their environment.
“Now, again, we have clever merchants coming with bizarre Chinese mushroom and Chinese potato seeds with wild claims they can be harvested in two weeks. We are rightfully rejecting them. Paprika gave us a harsh lesson,” Moyo said.
[Raymond Erick Zvavanyange provided an additional input to this article].