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THE plan by Government to provide small farmers with inputs for growing cotton has helped boost farm growth, tame poverty among the rural poor, and most importantly has created jobs.

"It is a good programme," said Sermon Zindoga. 32, from Nuanetsi Ranch in the Lowveld. "I planted only 1,5 ha and managed to buy cattle; meaning next season I will be able to plant a bigger hectarage since I will now have adequate draught power."

Implemented by the Cotton Company of Zimbabwe, the Presidential Cotton Input Scheme has supported over 155 000 families with key inputs such as seed, fertilizers and chemicals. The assistance benefited over one million people whose livelihoods are directly dependent on cotton farming. Output is this year expected to climb 600 percent year on year to 80 000 tonnes, according to official preliminary estimates.

Through the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, Government will provide inputs worth $60 million during 2017 /18 season, a 42 percent increase from last year's investment of $42 million. The assistance is expected to support about 400 000 families, Finance and Economic Development Minister Patrick Chinamasa told The Herald newspaper recently.

"We want to push cotton production to previous levels," Minister Chinamasa said. At peak, Zimbabwe's cotton production reached about 352 000 tonnes in 2011-13 season. When cotton production slumped, the biggest reason for the decline was the reduction in the planted area due to weak farmer-support by ginners, mostly private. This saw output falling to its lowest in more than two decades, with only 30 000 tonnes produced.

"The problem we really had was inadequate support from financiers, mostly private, in terms provision of inputs as well as poor prices. However, this programme has helped us in a big way and the appetite to grow cotton has significantly grown.

"At a minimum price of 47c per kilogramme, we realised better income from the crop this season and this has helped us to improve our standards of living. We have modernised our homes, we are able to pay fees for our school kids and also buy livestock," said Ms Agnes Tirimazi, a farmer in Chitekete in the Midlands Province.

The cotton value chain, including farmers, textile producers and clothing manufacturers has been on the tipping side, as the growth area has absorbed thousands of people.

More than 3 500 jobs have been created in the ginning industry, where half a dozen of Cottco ginneries have come back to life. All Cottco ginneries are functional, running at full throttle.

For Mr Norman Ziyadinga of Checheche in Manicaland, cotton earnings far exceeded his expectations. Free inputs plus a good price, Mr Ziyandinga managed to acquire a three tonne truck providing transport services to other villagers. "This will enable us to generate more income outside cotton. This is real empowerment," said Ziyandinga. Other farmers interviewed by The Herald in major cotton growing areas said they managed to invest in light irrigation equipment, grinding mills and chicken rearing projects.

"Cotton is our major source of livelihood, but we have also ventured into other projects to enable us to get constant income even during the off season," Mr Tapfumaneyi Charamba of Nemangwe in Gokwe, Midlands Province told The Herald Business.

Cotton Producers and Marketers Association of Zimbabwe chairman Mr Stewart Mubonderi said the impact on the rural people and business had been "so enormous."

"We have seen many shops re-opening, parents paying school fees on time thereby enabling leaning institutions to implement developmental projects and transporters getting a fair of the proceeds," said Mr Mubonderi in an interview yesterday.

"A lot of money circulated in the rural setting from homes, schools and growth points. We believe this was a great year but a lot can be done to do much better next season.

"People were a bit skeptical as some farmers had their hands burnt under rather exploitative schemes by other players. We are happy the funding has been expanded and we hope that the number of growers will also increase. We are also playing our role by conducting awareness programmes to encourage more farmers to join."

President of the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union, Mr Wonder Chabikwa said the Presidential Inputs Scheme supported the Reserve Bank's thrust to increase foreign currency generation. Mr Chabikwa also noted cotton production had been left in the hands of many private players who purported to be supporting small scale farmers.

"As a result, cotton production became almost non-existent," said Mr Chabikwa. We really commend the efforts by Government to bring back cotton. It is an important commodity because it supports many rural households and is key in the generation of foreign currency. We are expecting more farmers to produce the crop next season now that Government has announced a $60 million input package for next season. Chief Goredema of Gokwe said the recovery "is quite tremendous and we are looking forward to a much better season; improved participation as well as productivity."