Module Thirty, Activity One

Geography of Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe, as we will discover as we engage in the four learning activities in this unit, is a country with a significant history, geographic diversity, rich cultural traditions and complex social systems and practices. Take a look at Zimbabwe’s Coat of Arms and flag.  Even before we are introduced to the geography and history of Zimbabwe we may be able to learn something about the country by carefully looking at these two important national symbols.

Zimbabwe Coat of Arms
The images or icons included in a country’s flag and coat of arms are important to the national identity of the country.  Make a list of the the various items that are present on the coat of arms and flag of Zimbabwe and briefly indicate why you think that each icon was incorporated into the coat of arms and flag.  Some of these icons will be familiar and it may be obvious as to why they are included in Zimbabwe’s coat of arms.  However, some of the images may not be easily identifiable and therefore not obvious as to why they would be included in the coat of arms.  However, by the time you complete the four learning activities in this modules each of the icons will be identifiable and it will be obvious as to why they are part of the national coat of arms of Zimbabwe.


Zimbabwe Flag
Peoples of Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe has a current estimated population (2012) of 12.6 million.  In addition, there are an estimated two to three million Zimbabweans in the diaspora, living primarily in neighboring countries (South Africa, Botswana, Zambia) and in the UK, Australia and North America.  Zimbabweans can be divided into different ethnic and linguistic groups.  The Shona peoples (who speak ChiShona) make up approximately 80% of the population.  The second largest entho-linguistic group are the Ndebele peoples (who speak SiNdebele) who comprise almost 15% of the population of Zimbabwe.  The remaining five percent of the population is divided between smaller African ethnic groups (Tonga, Venda) who make up approximately three percent of the population, Zimbabweans of mix-raced coloured and South Asian populations (one percent) and Zimbabweans of European heritage (just under one percent—down from three percent in 1980).
Reflecting the influence of Christian missionaries who came to the country in the late 19th century more than 75% of Zimbabweans identify themselves as Christians.  However, nearly two-thirds of Christians in Zimbabwe belong to African Initiative or African Independent Churches (AICs) that broke away from mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches because of perceived discrimination. Over twenty percent of Zimbabweans are adherents of indigenous African religions, and Zimbabwe also has small communities of Muslims, Hindus and Jews.

Zimbabwe is located in southern Africa.  Globally its exact location extends from latitude 15° 30¢ South to latitude 22° 30¢ South and between longitude 25° East and longitude 30° East, stretching 725 kilometers (450 miles) from north to south and 835 kilometers (519 miles) from west to east covering 389,000 square kilometers in size.  If Zimbabwe was a state in the United States it would be the fourth largest state in size; just larger than Montana (377,000 square kilometers) but just smaller than California (407,000 square kilometers).
As you can tell from the maps below, Zimbabwe is a landlocked country—it has no direct access to the Indian Ocean to its east or the Atlantic Ocean to its west.  Zimbabwe is surrounded by five neighboring countries.  Can you identify all of five countries?  The easiest one to miss is Namibia located on Zimbabwe’s far west border.  The shared border with Namibia is literally on a point on the map—a ferry crossing at the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi rivers.  Far more important in Zimbabwe’s history and its current relationships are Zambia to the north (entire border formed by the Zambezi River), Mozambique to the east (important for accessing Indian Ocean ports), Botswana to the west, and most important to Zimbabwe, South Africa to the south (entire border formed by the Limpopo River).
Zimbabwe Location Map


Administratively Zimbabwe is divided into nine provinces (equivalent of states) as shown on the map below.  Can you identify the nine provinces?  Geographically the smallest but most heavily populated province is Harare, which includes the capital city and its suburbs and exurbs.  The other provinces are Manicaland on the eastern border with Mozambique, Mashonaland North, Mashonaland Central, Mashonaland East (these three provinces are named for the Shona ethnic-linguistic group that comprises the vast majority of the population in this region of Zimbabwe); Midlands Province in the middle of the country, Masvingo Province in the south east, Matabeleland South in the south west, and Matabeleland North in the north west (these last two provinces are named for the SiNdebele speaking people who comprise the majority of the population in theses provinces).


Zimbabwe Provinces

Map Relief of Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe Relief Map

Topographically Zimbabwe is divided into four regions (see map above):

  • The Eastern Highlands (five percent of the land area) comprises a narrow mountainous zone the stretches along Zimbabwe’s eastern border with Mozambique.  The highest point in the country is Mount Nyangani (2592 meters/8503 feet above sea level) is located in the Eastern Highlands.  This region also experiences the highest precipitation in the country and, due to the altitude, the lowest average temperatures in the country.  These factors provide conditions conducive to intensive commercial agriculture.  The region produces high quality temperate climate fruits, tea and coffee.  In addition, Zimbabwe’s timber industry is concentrated mainly in the Eastern Highlands with large plantations of pine and eucalyptus trees which are processed into lumber for building and polls for mining and fencing.  The region also has a highly developed domestic tourist industry providing summer homes and recreation opportunities.
  • The Highveld (20 percent of the land area) is comprised of a high plateau averaging between 1200 and 1500 meters above sea level (4000 to 5000 feet) that runs diagonally across the country from the border with Botswana in the south west to the border with Zambia and Mozambique in the north east.  As will be noted below, there is considerable variation in precipitation and natural vegetation  across the Highveld with the lowest rates of rainfall experienced in the south west and the considerably higher rates of rainfall in the central and northern sectors of this region.  The altitude in the of the region moderates the temperature to an average that is sub-tropical; a factor that made the Highveld attractive to settlers from Europe many of whom be became involved in large scale commercial farming in the region, as will be detailed in the next two learning activities of this module.
  • The Middleveld (40 percent of the land area)flanks both sides of the Highveld with altitudes ranging from 900- 1200 meters above sea level (3000 – 4000 feet).  On average the Middleveld receives less rainfall and has a higher average temperature than the Highveld making the region generally less productive agriculturally.
  • The Lowveld (35 percent of the land area) comprises all land areas below 900 meters above sea level (3,000 feet). As is clearly demonstrated on the relief map (above) there are two distinct Lowveld areas in Zimbabwe.  The largest is the is in the south eastern part of the country between the Save and Limpopo river valleys. This area is considerably drier than the other regions of Zimbabwe, and is not heavy populated.  However, thanks to irrigation (water supplied by the two rivers) this area is home to large scale sugar plantations. The second, but smaller, Lowveld region is along the northern border of the country along the Lake Kariba and the mid-Zambezi river valley.  This area is among the most sparsely populated areas of Zimbabwe.

Brief reference should be made to one of Zimbabwe’s special features—the Great Dyke.  It is a lopolith that intruded from the base granite of the Highveld.  It stenches along the Highveld for 515 kilometers and averages six kilometers in width.  The Great Dyke is rich in chromite making Zimbabwe one of the world’s leaders in the production of chrome.

Student Activity:

Do a web search for lopoliths.  Find out why this geographic feature is so rare and rich in minerals.  Then, do an image search to find photographs of the Great Dyke in Zimbabwe.

When we think about climate we normally concentrate on two indices: precipitation (rainfall and snowfall) and temperature.  In Zimbabwe these two indices are reflected in four climatic seasons, which are somewhat distinct from the four seasons that we used to in the North America and Europe.  Yet, although Zimbabwe lies entirely within the tropics, with the exception of the Lowveld areas, the country does not experience a typical wet or dry tropic climate—at best, the climate of Zimbabwe can be described as semi-tropic, or in the eastern highlands temperate. Before describing the four climatic seasons that Zimbabwe experiences, let’s take a look at the maps below.  The first map demonstrates the annual rainfall.  You will note that, like most of the rest of the world, Zimbabwe records rainfall in millimeters, not inches.  There are 25.4 millimeters to one inch.  Study the rainfall map of Zimbabwe—you will note that maximum rainfall areas in the eastern highlands receive, on average, 2000 millimeters of rain a year.  Now, calculate how much this is in inches. You will note that most of Zimbabwe actually receives less than 1000 millimeters of precipitation a year.  How much is this in inches?  Now, do a quick web search and find out what the average precipitation is in your home state or province.  How does this compare to Zimbabwe?   You will also note from information on the map, that rainfall is very seasonal in Zimbabwe.  What months of the year experience the most rainfall?  How does this compare to where you live—does your home area have a rainy season, or is there little difference in precipitation rates between the months of the year?

Zimbabwe Annual Rainfall Map
You will note from the following maps that once again, like most of the rest of the world, Zimbabwe measures temperature in centigrade or Celsius, and not in Fahrenheit as we do in the United States.  Centigrade/Celsius, as you may remember, is based on a metric system: 0° degrees is the temperature of freezing (32° F) and 100°C degrees is the boiling point  (212° F) of water at sea level. The formula for converting temperatures in centigrade into temperatures in Fahrenheit is complicated.  Fortunately, there are automatic conversion tables available for our use on the web.
When looking at the two maps that record temperatures in Zimbabwe, you will note that July is the coldest month on average and October (just before the rainy season) is the hottest moth.  How does this differ from what you experience where you live?  If you live anywhere in North America or Europe, July is likely to be one of the hottest months, on average, in the entire year.  What explains the difference in Zimbabwe?  That’s correct, Zimbabwe is in the southern hemisphere.  The northern hemispheric summer is winter (or the coolest time of the year in tropical places) in the southern hemisphere.
Zimbabwe Maximum Temp October Map
Zimbabwe Minimum Temp July Map

The Four Climatic Seasons in Zimbabwe

  • Hot dry season (September to November) when day time high temperatures average 32° C (89.6° F) on the Highveld and as high as 40°C (104°F) on the Lowveld.   Due to the hot dry conditions large grass fires (colloquially known as bush fires) are common throughout Zimbabwe.  October is generally the month that farmers prepare their fields for planting that will take place as soon as the rains begin.
  • The rainy season (mid November to mid March) during the rainy season the average day time temperature drops to a pleasant 27°C (80.6°F) on the Highveld and 32°C (89.6°F) on the Lowveld.  As is indicated on the precipitation map above, rainfall varies greatly throughout the country with the highest rainfall occurring in the Eastern Highlands and in northeast of the country.  The Southern border area of the country—the Limpopo river area receives on average less than 400 milliliters a year (less than 15 inches) resulting in a semi-arid environment that is not conducive to the cultivation of crops without irrigation.  In most of Zimbabwe the onset of the rainy season begins the annual agricultural cycle with the planting and cultivation of commercial and subsistence crops (detailed below).
  • Post-rainy season (late March to mid-May) is exemplified by the gradual reduction in rains and in temperatures.  It is a busy time of year in the agricultural cycle as preparations are made for the beginning of the harvest season.
  • The cold season (mid-May to mid-August) or winter, as it is called by many Zimbabwe, is characterized by beautiful cloud-free blue skies with early afternoon temperatures averaging 21°C (69.8°F) on the Highveld and somewhat higher in the Lowveld.  This may not seem like winter to those of us who live in Europe and North America, but nighttime temperatures do fall considerably.  Early morning frost is common in the Eastern Highlands and Highveld during the cold season.  These low temperatures do cause discomfort for the majority of Zimbabweans who do not have central heating systems.  In the agricultural cycle early winter is harvest time for most crops in Zimbabwe.

From the above description it is clear that Zimbabwe has a rather dry climate.  In fact, about two-thirds of the country receives on average less than 750 mm (just under 30 inches) of rain a year.  This is roughly the same average rainfall of the state of Kansas.  In addition to fairly low rate of precipitation, Zimbabwean agriculture is disadvantaged by the fact that the rainfall is not evenly spread throughout the year, but concentrated in a four-month period.  This restricts agricultural production to a much shorter growing season than what is available in much of North America, Europe and a large part of Asia.

Climate is the greatest determinant of the natural vegetation of a country or a region.  If you were to place the rainfall map of Zimbabwe (above) with the vegetation map (below) you would notice that there is a close correspondence between rainfall and vegetation.  Other factors, of course, that impacts natural vegetation are average temperatures and altitude. Zimbabwe Vegetation Map

Your Turn

Compare the vegetation map immediately above, with the precipitation map and the relief map on the earlier pages.

  • In which regions does most of the cultivation in Zimbabwe take place?
  • Why do you think this is the case?
  • What is the average precipitation in the areas in which most of the cultivation takes place?
  • What is natural vegetation in the regions where most of the cultivation takes place?
  • Based on the information provided on these maps, what do you think was in the past one of the major difficulties farmers faced in preparing for cultivation?
  • You will note that some cultivation takes place in the far south and south west regions of Zimbabwe.  What is the primary obstacle to cultivation in these areas? How might farmers overcome this obstacle?

Economic Activity

Zimbabwe, until the past decade, had one of the most diversified economies in Africa.  Commerce, manufacturing, mining, and agriculture were all important sectors of the country’s economy.  As is the case in developed economies of Europe, east Asia and North America, prior to 2000 C.E. Zimbabwe’s the service sector was the largest sector in the economy and agriculture, while important, was not as important in terms of its share of the gross domestic product (GDP). In the next activities of this module we will investigate the historical and contemporary factors that explain Zimbabwe’s impressive economic system and it more recent precipitous decline.


Although agriculture in Zimbabwe contributes a smaller share to the GPD than do the industrial and service sectors, agriculture is very important to the national economy.   Until the recent political and economic crisis in the country, commercial agriculture was by far the largest employer in Zimbabwe.  As recently as 2000 C.E.  more than one quarter (26%) of the employees in the country worked in the commercial agricultural sector.  Indeed, in the first decade after the country’s independence in 1980 one third of the laborers working for wages were employed in agriculture.  Moreover,  approximately 40% of the economically active population of Zimbabwe is engaged in subsistence farming.  This means that more than two-thirds of the population of Zimbabwe makes their living in the agricultural sector.

In addition, until the recent discovery of large diamond deposits in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe, agriculture contributed on average 40% of the country’s yearly export earnings.  Tobacco, followed by cotton, sugar, tea, and coffee have been the major agricultural exports.

Agricultural activity in Zimbabwe can be divided into two major sectors, the commercial sector which up until very recently (2000 C.E.) was dominated by large farms owned predominantly by Zimbabweans of European descent, that produce agricultural products exclusively for sale, and the subsistence sector, comprising approximately 40% of the country’s population, that produces products primarily for family consumption.  Some commentators and scholars refer to the bifurcated rural economy as Zimbabwe’s dual economy.  

Subsistence sector:

In spite of the fact that up until 2000 C.E., when the current political crisis exploded,  Zimbabwe had one of the most developed and diversified economies in Africa, only 40% of the Zimbabwean population lived in urban areas.  Since 1990 the percentage of urban dwellers has declined to 35%.  This means that 65% of the Zimbabwean population live in rural areas, the vast majority of whom are dependent on farming for their livelihood.  Among rural population, the vast majority—almost 70%--belong to family units that are engaged in subsistence agriculture.

Subsistence farmers, by definition, primary consume all that they produce; indeed, many subsistence farmers consume only what they can produce themselves or barter for with neighbors. In an earlier module (Module Nine: African Economies) we provided a detailed description of subsistence farming throughout Africa.

In the next two learning activities in this module on Zimbabwe focus on the history of Zimbabwe and the land issue in the country.  These activities will provide the details and a critical analysis that explain why so many Zimbabweans are still dependent on subsistence agriculture in spite of the fact that the country had up until 2000 C.E. a strong and diversified national economy.

In the pre-colonial era, most Zimbabweans were engaged in a form of subsistence farming.  In addition to vegetables the primary staples grown by Zimbabwean farmers were millet, sorghum and groundnuts (peanuts).  Cassava and tubers (sweet potatoes, yams, etc), while grown, were not as important as they were to neighboring societies north of the Zambezi River. In addition to growing crops, subsistence farmers in this era also raised goats, cattle and poultry.  They supplemented what they produced with hunting and gathering wild fruits, berries and honey.

The crops grown in pre-colonial Zimbabwe remain important today in the communal areas (see discussion in the next to learning activities).  However, maize (corn), which was introduced into Zimbabwe from the Americas in the early 19th century, has become the main staple of Zimbabwean subsistence farmers.

Women farmers in Zimbabwe

Commercial Sector

Commercial agriculture, as we will see in the next learning activity that focuses on the history of Zimbabwe, played a central role the development of the country during its colonial era that made up most of the 20th century.  If the geography of the country—climate, topography, soils—had not been amenable to commercial agriculture, the history of Zimbabwe would have been very different.

As will be detailed in the next two learning modules, commercial agriculture in Zimbabwe developed out government policies that deliberately took land from Africans and basically provided the large chunks of land to settlers from Europe whose farming endeavors were supported by government backed low-interest loans for equipment and inputs, generous price subsidies, extension services backed by government supported research, and an ever expanding road and transport system that enabled agricultural produce from rural areas to reach urban and export markets.  None of theses support mechanism were available to African farmers until very late in the colonial era.

These historical antecedents impacted the practice and system of commercial agriculture through the end of the 20th century—two decades after Zimbabwe won its independence.  Again, as will be detailed in the learning activity that focuses on the land crisis in Zimbabwe, at independence in 1980 the commercial agricultural system had a three tiered structure:

  • Large company owned estates
  • Medium sized (1,200 – 1,600 hectare ) farms over 98% of which were owned by Zimbabwean of European heritage in 1980
  • Small Purchase Area (20-200 hectares) farms owned almost exclusively by Zimbabweans of African heritage.


Comprising approximately 6,000 farms the first two categories dominated the commercial agriculture sector through 2000 C.E.  These estates and farms employed 300,000 wage laborers (1.8 million with their families) making the commercial agricultural sector by far the largest wage sector in Zimbabwe’s economy.

Like elsewhere in the world, the crops grown and animals raised is dependent on factors such as climate (rainfall and temperature), topography (flat, hilly, mountainous) soil composition, and location (distance to primary markets).  Most of these factors are reflected in the classification of agricultural zones in Zimbabwe (map below)

Zimbabwe Agriculture Zones Map

Commercial Crops

  • Tobacco Since the 1930s tobacco has been the most important commercial crop in terms of earnings in Zimbabwe.  Indeed, in many years tobacco has been the country’s top export earner and the country has been the top tobacco producer in all of Africa.  Tobacco farming is highly skilled and is labor intensive (cultivated from seedlings, transplanted by hand, suckering the plants as they mature, topping off plants so they don’t go to seed, and harvesting, all by hand) —much more so than maize and cotton productions that are also very important in Zimbabwe.  Tobacco production has declined in recent years due in part to political instability in the country, the impact of new land policies, and the decline in global demand.
tobacco auction
Tobacco Auction

tobacco plant

  • Maize (corn) is the most important commercial (and subsistence) food crop in Zimbabwe (as it is in all neighboring countries in southern Africa). Maize flour (mealie meal) is the basic ingredient of sadza the primary carbohydrate prepared food that is consumed at least once a day by the vast majority of Zimbabweans.  In years with normal rainfall Zimbabwe’s three million subsistence farmers produce sufficient maize for their own consumption.  However, with over 35% of the population living in urban areas there is a significant demand for commercially produced maize.  During years of adequate rainfall Zimbabwe’s commercial farmers produce a surplus that could be stored to be used in years of drought.  However, since 2000 C.E. and the disruptions of production caused by the land crisis and exacerbated by drought, Zimbabwe has become dependent on imported maize to meet domestic demand.




Sadza with sides of chicken & greens
  • Cotton  Next to tobacco cotton is the leading agricultural export earner in Zimbabwe.  Unlike tobacco, cotton is grown on estates, on large commercial farms, and by small scale African commercial farmers.  While much of the cotton crop is exported, it is also used in the domestic textile industry, which was vibrant up until the late 1990s when the industry was negatively impacted by external competition, primarily from China.
Cotton in Zimbabwe


Small-scale cotton farmer
  • Coffee and Tea are relatively recent—post world war II--  additions to Zimbabwe’s commercial agricultural sector.  Both are grown in the eastern highlands that has sufficient rainfall and temperatures that allow for the production of these crops. Coffee is grown primarily on medium sized commercial farms, whereas tea, which is more labor intensive, is grown on estates.  Unlike the east African countries of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia, Zimbabwe is not a major producer of these commodities.  However, Zimbabwean produced coffee and tea have a growing reputation in the region for quality.
Tea plantation in Zimbabwe
Coffee Plantation in Zimbabwe
  • Sugar  In 1956 the Zimbabwe became a sugar producer.  As part of a government supported collaborative endeavor with transnational agri-business a large-scale irrigation project was developed in the lowveld area in south-eastern Zimbabwe near the border areas with South Africa and Mozambique. Key to the success of this project was the construction of a series of dams on medium size rivers that were tributaries of the Limpopo river.   The Hippo Valley Estate was the major beneficiary of this project. By independence in 1980 Zimbabwe produced enough sugar to meet domestic demand and was able to export the surplus.
Sugar Cane
Irrigated sugar cane in Zimbabwe
  • Cattle   Historically, cattle have been of great cultural, social and economic importance to the peoples of Zimbabwe.  Indeed, cattle were central to the socio-economic structure of the Ndebele speaking peoples.  While not as central to the political economy of the Shona speaking peoples of Zimbabwe, cattle also played an important cultural and economic role in their societies.  Cattle became a major agricultural commodity during the colonial era as European settler farmers developed commercially viable agriculture in the semi arid areas of western Zimbabwe.   Cattle ranches, as in U.S., tend to be of significant size.  One ranch in Zimbabwe, is over 300,000 hectares (700,000 acres) in size with 70,000 head of cattle.  In addition, up until the land redistribution in 2000 C.E. there were over 20 ranches of 90,000 hectares and an addition 70 with more than 20,000 hectares.  Zimbabwe is self-sufficient in beef production, and exports meat primary to the European Union and to countries in the western Asia (Middle East).
Range fed cattle in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwean Bull
  • Dairy  Zimbabwe’s dairy industry was hit hard by the land reforms after 2000.  Dairy herds are expensive and are high maintenance—the industry is highly specialized making it susceptible to major changes such came with the land reform effort.  Prior to 2000 C.E. Zimbabwe had nearly 500 commercial dairy farms and was self-sufficient in milk and cheese production.  However, since that time Zimbabwe no longer produces sufficient dairy products for its domestic market and has had to import products from South Africa.
first lady dairy farm
Zimbabwe's First Lady (center) on her dairy farm
  • Poultry & Pigs  The commercial agriculture sector in Zimbabwe is also active in the production of chickens (meat and eggs) and pork products.  Again, up until the disruptions caused by the land crisis in the early 21st century, Zimbabwean farmers produced sufficient pork and poultry products to meet the domestic demand.
  • Fruits  Zimbabwe has well developed fruit industry. It is totally self sufficient in citrus fruits that are grown under irrigation in the Mazoe region just north east of the capital Harare, and in the Hippo Valley along with the sugar plantations. Temperate fruits are grown in the cooler regions of the eastern highlands.  However, the temperate fruit industry does not produce enough to meet local demand.
rainbow over citrus estate
Rainbow over Mazoe citrus estates.

To briefly recap: although agriculture production contributes less to the gross domestic product (GDP) of Zimbabwe than do the commercial and industrial sectors, agriculture is central to the country’s economy.  This is most clearly reflected in the fact that more than two thirds of Zimbabwe’s economically engage adults are involved in either the commercial or subsistence agricultural sectors.  Indeed, until 2000 C.E. when agricultural productivity was negatively impacted by the land crisis, Zimbabwe was self-sufficient in almost all agricultural food products and was a net exporter of agricultural goods (that is, the value of agricultural exports was greater than the value of agricultural imports).  Zimbabwe was referred to , correctly, as one of Africa’s breadbaskets.  

Fish traditionally has not been as important as other sources of animal protein to the diet of Zimbabweans.  However, fish is widely eaten and enjoyed.  The domestic fishing industry got a tremendous boost with the flooding of the Zambezi River to create Lake Kariba with the construction of Kariba Dam in the 1950s.  Although the primary purpose of the dam was the production of hydroelectricity, the seeding of the new lake with limnothrissa miodon, or kapenta as it is locally known, resulted in the development of commercial fishing industry in Zimbabwe and neighboring Zambia, which share Lake Kariba. Kapenta are a small fish, similar to smelt, that are most often dried for easy preservation and transportation.  It provides an inexpensive source of good protein to the urban populations of Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Lake Kariba
Lake Kariba
dam on lake kariba
dam on Lake Kariba
Kapenta fish
Kapenta fish from Lake Kariba


A hundred and fifty years ago, just before the arrival of the European colonialists, more than 80 percent of the country was covered in woodlands of varying degrees of density.  The composition of indigenous forests varied due to climatic differences in altitude, temperature and rainfall.  Subsistence agriculturalist employing a system of shifting agriculture would clear an area of land for crops sufficient to produce needed food for the family.  On average the farmer would use the same plot of land for four to five years before allowing it to go fallow and clearing another area for cultivation. The trees felled for clearing land would be used as fire-wood for cooking in heating.  This system was not harmful to the environment that could sustain the population.

The system changed dramatically in the 20th century as the result of the modes of production and consumption that were introduced by European settler colonialism that will be discussed in detail in the next two learning activities.  In the 1920s and 1930s the Rhodesian government introduced land policies that reserved large areas of land (more than 40% of total area) for European commercial agriculture. The rural African population was moved, as we will see, into “tribal trust lands”—or “native reserves.”  This policy had a direct impact on Zimbabwean forests and woodlands.  In the areas reserved for European controlled commercial agriculture large areas of land were cleared of trees to allow for large-scale cultivation.  Unlike the traditional system of shifting agriculture, this system did not allow for the cleared land to return to a fallow period after a set period of cultivation.  Consequently,  the areas cleared were lost permanently to a woodland/forest ecology.

In the “tribal trust lands” (TTLs) the results were more devastating.  The African population did not have the freedom to move as they had under a system of shifting agriculture.  They were forced to cultivate pieces of land allocated to their use without allowing for periods of fallow.  Once cut, the natural tree cover was not given the opportunity to rejuvenate.  Moreover, as the population of  the TTLs increased, so did the demand for firewood, the primary energy source in the TTLs.  As a result by the 1960s most of the TTLs were completely deforested making the search for firewood increasingly difficult.  The following map (from the mid 1980s) shows the how much of Zimbabwe is facing a wood shortage.


Zimbabwe Wood Map

The demand for wood products in not limited to firewood.  As the economy of the country expanded in the 20th century, lumber was needed for construction and furniture making, particularly in the rapidly growing urban areas.  Timber was also in demand for use on commercial farms (fence posts), in mines (support columns) and railroads (rail ties). To respond to this demand the colonial government encouraged the development of large scale forest estates particularly in the eastern highlands and in the province of Matebeleland North.  The timber industry is dependent on imported trees species the most important being the fast growing eucalyptus trees from Australia, and a variety of pine trees from Europe.

Since independence in 1980 the government has initiated policies and programs that focus on re-forestation throughout the country.


As we will learn in the next activity that focuses on the history of Zimbabwe, there is a rich history of mining in Zimbabwe dating back as early as the 6th century C.E. when the ancestors of the Shona peoples migrated from areas north of the Zambezi River bringing with them the traditions and skills of mining, smelting and tool construction from iron and copper ore in addition to mining and smelting gold into nuggets for trade.

Moreover, Zimbabwe in its current borders owes it existence to the belief that area between the Limpopo River in the south and the Zambezi River in the north was rich in mineral resources.  Cecil Rhodes, who formed the British South African Company for the expressed purpose of colonizing the areas north of the Limpopo river, was driven by the firm conviction that this region was rich in mineral resources—as abundant as the rich gold reefs of South Africa that were discovered in the 1880s. However, the area that became Zimbabwe in the 20th century, while having significant minerals, did not turn out to be the  gold and diamond El Dorado as Rhodes had anticipated.  It wasn’t until the early 21st century that a large deposit of diamonds was discovered in the Manica Province of eastern Zimbabwe.  Interestingly, it was only after Rhodes realized that Zimbabwe would not be a second South Africa in terms of mineral wealth, that the European settler population and colonial regime turned their attention to developing what would become the rich commercial agricultural sector that played a key role in Zimbabwe’s development in the 20th century.

Geologically the ancient Precambrian rock shield that formed the geology of most of southern and eastern Africa 3.5 million years ago contains a rich diversity of minerals that are economically viable.  During the 20th century more than 100 of these minerals were commercially mined in Zimbabwe and as late as 2000 C.E. 40 minerals were mined in Zimbabwe (see map below).  Of these 40 minerals six are of significant commercial value: asbestos, chrome, coal, copper, diamonds, gold and platinum.  What separates the commercial production of these minerals in Zimbabwe from mining in many countries in Africa is the process of beneficiation or conversion of metal ore into a product that can be used directly by manufactures.

Mining in many African countries during the colonial era was more exclusively an extractive process.  That is, when commercially viable mineral deposits were discovered, large multinational mining companies would extract the ore and export the raw ore out of the country for processing.  That meant that there was no beneficiation process that facilitated the transformation of the ore into a product that could be used in manufacturing.  Beneficiation results in what economist refer to as down stream or multiplier benefits to the country’s economies.  Capital (money) is invested in the processing of the minerals which creates skilled employment opportunities and creates demand for products to be used in the processing stream that can be supplied by new businesses, which in turn, creates more jobs, helping to expand and diversify the economy.  This is what happened in Rhodesia (colonial Zimbabwe) as a result of the influence of the European settler government, but not in most African colonies where the multinational mining companies wanted to maximize profits and had no incentive to establish a process of beneficiation.

Zimbabwe Major Minerals

Asbestos:  Zimbabwe in the mid 20th century was one of the leading exporters of asbestos, a mineral that is highly heat resistant.  Consequently, spun asbestos fibers have been used as a heat insulator in the manufacturing of items that are subject to intense heat including the break linings of cars and trucks. In Zimbabwe asbestos is also used in building materials to increase resistance to fires.  Unfortunately, asbestos is also a carcinogen (causes cancer) and is directly linked to serious respiratory illnesses. The health risks linked to asbestos has reduced global demand for the mineral, but it continues to be used, with safeguards, as a fire and heat retardant.

Chrome is an important alloy in the construction of high quality steel products; it is prized for its high corrosion resistance and hardness.  It is essential to the production on of stainless steel and high performance engines, including jet engines.  During the Vietnam War the U.S. was dependent on chrome ores from Rhodesia (a leading exporter of the mineral) for the manufacturing of jet engines necessary for the war effort.  This dependency contributed to the U.S. support of the oppressive European settler regime headed by Ian Smith (see next learning activity), a situation in which economic policy was deemed to be more important than support for the legitimate political and human rights of the majority African population of Zimbabwe.

Coal is a major source of energy in Zimbabwe and of export earnings for the country.  Zimbabwe is blessed with large deposits of relatively high quality coal (nearly 25% of all known coal reserves in the entire continent of Africa) which are generally near the earth’s surface allowing for open pit mining which is less expensive than deep shaft underground mining.   Domestically, coal is used primarily in the production of energy in the form of electricity.  Approximately one third of Zimbabwe’s electricity is produced in the thermal power plants powered by coal.  Coal is exported in large quantities to neighboring Zambia and Congo where it is used to smelt copper ore.

Copper is an important but not major mining concern in Zimbabwe.  Copper mining and smelting is much more important neighboring Zambia and the Congo which are major copper producers.

Gold: The belief that Zimbabwe was rich in gold deposits was a primarily reason for the colonization of the area between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers by the British South African Company (detailed in the next learning activity).  Although Zimbabwe did not turn out to be the anticipated El Dorado, gold was mined in Zimbabwe consistently since the early 20th century.  In the 1930s gold was the leading export of the country.  Currently Zimbabwe is the 24th largest gold producer in the world and is ranked sixth in Africa.

Platinum is a one of the rarest minerals on earth.  It has tremendous industrial value (essential to catalytic converters) and is a precious metals commodity (often more valuable than gold).  Zimbabwe is the third largest producer of platinum in the world after South Africa (number one) and Russia.

Diamonds  were only recently discovered in Zimbabwe and commercial mining  began in the early 21st century.  The largest of the newly discovered diamond fields are the Marange fields located in Chiadzwa district in Manica province near the eastern border with Mozambique.  From the beginning of the mining of diamonds in the country the process has been very secretive and controversial.  The government of Zimbabwe has not released information regarding the ownership or production data from the diamond mines. Consequently, there are no reliable data on the size of the reserves.  Some estimates indicate that the Marange fields may contain more than 20 percent of the known unmined diamonds in the world.  If this estimate is correct, diamond mining has the potential of dramatically improving the economy of Zimbabwe, similar to the positive impact of the diamond industry in neighboring Botswana; the largest producer of diamonds in Africa and one of most prosperous countries on the African continent.

The controversy and lack of transparency over diamond mining has centered on four major interrelated issues: who owns and controls the mines (government? Local business persons? Foreign companies—Chinese? the Zimbabwean army or individual generals?); treatment of indigenous inhabitants of Chiadzwa (loss of land with minimum compensation?); labor conditions at the mines (forced labor? Hazardous working conditions?); the control and use of profits generated by the sale of diamonds (minimum benefit to Zimbabwean peoples/society?).

As a result of the this controversy a number of international organizations  have called for the intervention of the Kimberly Process which was established in the 1990s to deal with the sale of illegally mined and sold blood diamonds, the profits from which fueled brutal civil wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The controversy over Zimbabwe’s diamonds has not disappeared but in early 2012 the Kimberly Process allowed Zimbabwe to begin selling its diamonds on the global market.  You can get the details on the controversy surrounding the Marange diamond fields to visiting the website of  Global Witness, an international human rights group that focuses on the exploitative production and illegal sale of diamonds and other minerals and the use of profits in support of human rights abuses globally.

mine slag heap
Platinum mine slag heap
underground mining
Underground mining.

Your Turn

The discovery and mining of diamonds has been controversial in Zimbabwe, as indicated above.   Several international advocacy groups have lobbied the Kimberly Process to ban the international sale of Zimbabwean mined diamonds until there have been substantive reforms in the way diamonds are mined and sold.  The government of Zimbabwe, not surprisingly has a total different perspective.  Take a look at the arguments presented by Global Witness, a leading opponent of the current practice of diamond mining in Zimbabwe.  Carefully read the various documents that they provide.  What are the major arguments they make for banning the international sale of Zimbabwean diamonds?

Once you have completed this task, do an advanced web search for statements by the government of Zimbabwe regarding their right to sell diamonds openly on the international markets.  How do they respond to the accusations brought by groups such as Global Witness?  Based on what you have read which perspective in your opinion presents the strongest argument?  What is the rationale for your assessment?


As is the case in other sectors of the economy, manufacturing in Zimbabwe can be divided into two eras—(i) from independence in 1980 until the late 1990s—a time of expansion, and (ii) from that time until 2008—a time of crisis and severe decline when the manufacturing sector declined by more than 30%.

As we have seen in the agricultural and mining sectors of the economy, in the 1980s Zimbabwe had the most developed manufacturing sector in all of Africa, outside of South Africa.  As will be detailed in the next learning activity that focuses on the history of Zimbabwe, the European settlers who controlled Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia) up until independence in 1980, were determined to develop an integrated modern economy in the country, based on strong manufacturing and service sectors.  This policy agenda was in stark contrast to the economic agenda in the more traditional neighboring colonies where the European colonial officials did not demonstrate interest in initiating economic policies that would result in advanced integrated and diversified economies.

Unfortunately, while economic policy in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) resulted in an integrated and diversified economy with a strong manufacturing sector, it did not benefit the African people who comprised more than 85% of the population throughout the 20th century.  Indeed, the European settler population was convinced that a strong developed economy was essential to their overall agenda of maintaining European hegemony in the country.

In 1980 the new majority government of independent Zimbabwe inherited a diversified, but highly unequal, economy.  To its credit, over the first 15 years of its rule the ZANU-PF government led by Robert Mugabe, instituted policies that allowed the manufacturing sector of the economy to continue to grow and expand.  Indeed, by the early 1990s manufacturing comprised 23% of the country’s GDP (gross domestic product), which is similar to the contribution of manufacturing to the GDPs of more advanced economies.

The manufacturing sector in Zimbabwe can be divided into several sectors the most important being:

  • Agricultural/food processing of crops grown and raised in Zimbabwe into products that can to be used directly by consumers domestically and as exports—grains into flour and meal; sugar cane into sugar products; canning and freezing of fruits and vegetables; processing and packaging of tea and coffee; butchering, processing and packaging of meat (beef, pork, mutton) and poultry.
  • Textiles:  processing of Zimbabwean grown cotton from cotton-thread spools through the weaving of cloth, to the manufacturing of clothes ready for wear by consumers.
  • Metallurgy: smelting of locally mined minerals into refined metals ready for direct use by manufacturers in Zimbabwe and export to neighboring countries.  The jewel in Zimbabwe’s metal sector is the Redcliff steel plant near the central town of Kwekwe, which was until 2000 was the largest steel mill in all of Africa, outside of South Africa.  The Redcliff mill used locally mined iron ore and limestone along with coal coke mined in Hwange to produce high quality steel that was used by Zimbabwean manufacturers.
  • Building supplies:  using locally processed materials – metals, wood, glass—in the manufacturing of materials for use in residential and commercial construction.  Up until the current economic crisis, Zimbabwe manufactured all the bricks/cement blocks, cement, lumber, window and door frames, roofing materials, and most electronic and plumbing fixtures used in the domestic and commercial building industries.
  • Furniture: primarily using locally grown and processed lumber, Zimbabwe has a vibrant furniture manufacturing sector that has exported to neighboring countries in addition to meeting local demand.
  • Electronics and automotive: in the 1980s and 1990s Zimbabwe began to develop a small by important automotive and electronic assembly sector that suffered greatly as a result of the economic crises of the 2000s.
steel mill
Zisco Redcliff Steel Mill

zimbabwe industries map


As is the case in a number of countries in east and southern Africa tourism, prior to the political upheaval of the 2000s, was a major economic activity in Zimbabwe.  The country has much to offer international visitors.

Potential visitors from Asia, Europe and North America, are often attracted by possibility of viewing African animals, particularly the Big Five, in their natural environment.  To capture their interest countries like Zimbabwe, and neighboring Zambia and Botswana, have to offer amenities that provide an acceptable level of comfort (game lodges and restaurants) as well as a guarantee that visitors will be able to see the animals that they want to view.  Zimbabwe offers several world-class game parks that provide tourists the amenities that they expect; the map below shows the location of these parks, the largest of which is Hwange Park is north western Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe National Parks map

hwange national park
Watering hole at Hwange National Park.
hwange main camp
Tourist chalet, Main Camp, Hwange National Park

International tourists are also attracted to Zimbabwe’s natural scenery including the beautiful eastern highlands and the marvelous natural rock formations in the Matobo Hills just south of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city.  However, the must see in Zimbabwe are the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River that borders Zimbabwe and Zambia. Victoria Falls, or Mosi oa Tunya (the “smoke that thunders,” in CiLozi, the local language) are a spectacular natural wonder.  The depth or drop of the Falls is almost 100 meters, twice as deep as the Niagara Falls.  And, the falls are more than twice as wide as the Niagara and Horseshoe Falls combined.  Tourist who visit the falls can take advantage of a number of related activities including, viewing the falls from a helicopter or hot-air balloon, bungee jumping off of the Falls bridge that crosses the Zambezi River just below the Falls, and white water rafting through the deep gorges of the Zambezi River below the Falls.

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls 2

There is a third type of tourism that is becoming increasing popular in Africa, including in Zimbabwe, called heritage tourism.  A growing number of tourists are interested in exploring the rich cultural heritage of African countries.  Zimbabwe has a number of heritage attractions, the most important being the ruins of Great Zimbabwe in south central Zimbabwe, the center of an important kingdom that flourished 700 years ago.  Great Zimbabwe will be featured in two of the following learning activities.

Great Zimbabwe
Great Zimbabwe. David Wiley. Used with permission.

Go on to Activity Two or select from one of the other activities in this module.