Natural Regions in Zimbabwe

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Zimbabwe is divided into five agro-ecological regions, known as natural regions (Figure 1), on the basis of the rainfall regime, soil quality (Figure 2) and vegetation among other factors. The quality of the land resource declines from Natural Region (NR) I through to NR V (Moyo, 2000; Vincent and Thomas, 1961). Table 1 describes these natural regions and their farming systems.

Natural Region I

This region lies in the east of the country. It is characterized by rainfall of more than 1 000 mm/year (most of which falls throughout the year), low temperatures, high altitude and steep slopes. The country’s timber production is located in this region. The plantations are owned mainly by the State through the Forestry Commission and by multinationals. There are several small owner-operated plantations and sawmills. NR I is ideally suitable for intensive diversified agriculture and livestock production, mainly dairy farming. Common crops are tropical crops such as coffee and tea, deciduous fruits, such as bananas and apples, and horticultural crops, such as potatoes, peas and other vegetables. Flowers, such as proteas (Proteaceae spp.), are grown for export.

Description of the Natural regions of Zimbabwe

Natural
Region
Area
(000 ha)
% of total land area
(%)
Annual rainfall Farming Systems
(mm)
I 613 1.56 > 1 000. Rain in all months of the year, relatively low temperatures Suitable for dairy farming forestry, tea, coffee, fruit, beef and maize production
II 7 343 18.68 700-1 050. Rainfall confined to summer Suitable for intensive farming, based on maize, tobacco, cotton and livestock
III 6 855 17.43 500-800. Relatively high temperatures and infrequent, heavy falls of rain, and subject to seasonal droughts and severe mid-season dry spells Semi-intensive farming region. Suitable for livestock production, together with production of fodder crops and cash crops under good farm management
IV 13 010 036 33.03 450-650. Rainfall subject to frequent seasonal droughts and severe dry spells during the rainy season Semi-extensive region. Suitable for farm systems based on livestock and resistant fodder crops. Forestry, wildlife/tourism
V 10 288 26.2 < 450. Very erratic rainfall. Northern low veldt may have more rain but the topography and soils are poor Extensive farming region. Suitable for extensive cattle ranching. Zambezi Valley is infested with tsetse fly. Forestry, wildlife/tourism

Source: Adapted from Moyo, 2000; Vincent and Thomas, 1961.

Natural Region II

This region is located in the middle of the north of the country. The rainfall ranges from 750 to 1 000 mm/year. It is fairly reliable, falling from November to March/April. Because of the reliable rainfall and generally good soils, NR II is suitable for intensive cropping and livestock production. It accounts for 75-80 percent of the area planted to crops in Zimbabwe. The cropping systems are based on flue-cured tobacco, maize, cotton, wheat, soybeans, sorghum, groundnuts, seed maize and burley tobacco grown under dryland production as well as with supplementary irrigation in the wet months. Irrigated crops include wheat and barley grown in the colder and drier months (May-September). NR II is suitable for intensive livestock production based on pastures and pen-fattening utilizing crop residues and grain. The main livestock production systems include beef, dairy, pig and poultry. Prior to 2000, the region was dominated by the large-scale farming subsector characterized by highly mechanized farms of 1 000-2 000 ha under freehold title and owner-operated. Following the agrarian and land reform programmes initiated in 1999/2000, a large proportion of the farms were subdivided into smaller units and allocated to new farmers under the A1 and A2 small-scale farming system.

Natural Region III

NR III is located mainly in the mid-altitude areas of the country. It is characterized by annual rainfall of 500-750 mm, mid-season dry spells and high temperatures. Production systems are based on drought-tolerant crops and semi-intensive livestock farming based on fodder crops. The predominant farming system is smallholder agriculture. Large-scale farming accounts for 15 percent of the arable land production, most of the land being used for extensive beef ranching (Roth, 1990). Smallholder agriculture in the communal farming areas is under relatively intensive cropping systems. The main crops are maize (the staple foodgrain) and cotton (a major cash crop). NR III is suitable for the production of groundnuts and sunflowers as cash crops.

Natural Region IV

NR IV is located in the low-lying areas in the north and south of the country. The characteristics of the region are: annual rainfall of 450-650 mm, severe dry spells during the rainy season, and frequent seasonal droughts. Although NR IV is considered unsuitable for dryland cropping, smallholder farmers grow drought-tolerant varieties of maize, sorghum, pearl millet (mhunga) and finger millet (rapoko). NR IV is ideally suitable for cattle production under extensive production systems and for wildlife production.

Natural Region V

NR V covers the lowland areas below 900 m above sea level in both the north and south of the country. The rainfall is less than 650 mm/year and highly erratic. Although NR V receives reasonable rainfall in the northern part of Zimbabwe along the Zambezi River, its uneven topography and poor soils make it unsuitable for crop production. Generally, NR V is suitable for extensive cattle production and game-ranching.

Although both NR IV and NR V are too dry for crop production, households on the communal lands in these regions grow grain crops (maize and millet) for their food security and some cash crops such as cotton. Crop yields are extremely low and the risk of crop failure is high in one out of three years (Rukuni and Eicher, 1994). Cattle and goat production are major sources of cash income.

Table 2 further subdivides the five NRs into 18 agro-ecological zones (AEZs) by including information on soils and on the probability of annual rainfall exceeding 500 mm.

LANDHOLDING, LAND USE AND CROPPING PATTERNS IN COMMUNAL LANDS

Rainfall is the major determinant of the agricultural production patterns in Zimbabwe. Most crops are planted in November/December at the beginning of the rains and harvested between April and June. Winter wheat, barley and various horticultural products are grown in the dry season under irrigation. Irrigation schemes are also important in supplementing the production of wheat, tobacco, maize, cotton, soybeans, groundnuts and coffee.

The proportion of land allocated to food crops varies with the AEZ, availability or size of land, and farm productivity. In general, farm households in NRs II and III allocate 40-50 percent of the arable land under cultivation to food crops. The proportion rises to 60-70 percent in NRs IV and V.

Cropping patterns and land allocation to various crops within the communal area subsector by NR suggest the following salient features (Ashworth, 1990; Roth, 1990; Masters, 1991; National Early Warning, AGRITEX, 1994; MLAWD, 1993):

  • Maize is a dominant crop across all AEZs, occupying 50-70 percent of the cropped area in NRs I, IIA, and IIB, and 40-50 percent of the cropped area in NRs III, IV and V
  • Cotton is dominant in NR III.
  • Small grains, particularly sorghum and pearl millet, are dominant in NRs IV and V
  • Nationally, the major crops are maize, which occupies 45-50 percent of the cropped area, followed by pearl millet with 15-20 percent, sorghum with 10-15 percent and cotton with 7-10 percent.
  • The dominance of maize and the small grains is a reflection of their importance as food crops for communal area households.
  • Finger millet and sunflowers are widely grown in all NRs, except that the area of sunflower in NR I is relatively small, accounting for 2-4 percent of the cropped area. Finger millet is grown for home use while sunflowers are essentially a cash crop.

A comparative analysis of statistics on land allocated to each crop for the period 1980-1994 (National Early Warning Unit, AGRITEX, 1994) suggests:

  • Maize area is fairly uniform across the communal areas in NRs IIA and IIB with an average of 1.75 ha. Maize areas are largest in relation to other crops in NRs IIA, IIB and III.
  • Cotton areas are largest in relation to other crops in NR III.
  • Small grains areas are largest in relation to other crops in NRs IV and V.
  • Yields of all crops decrease from NR II to NRs IV and V
  • The relative ratio of land allocation per crop and yield suggests that farmers in NRs IIA and IIB have a comparative advantage in the production of maize and cotton. Farmers in NR III have a comparative advantage in the production of cotton followed by maize. For farmers in NRs IV and V, their comparative advantage is in the production of small grains.