Zimbabwe plunges towards a food crisis

Farisai Moyo was hoping for a bumper harvest this year, but all he has to show for his hard work is a field of wilted maize – the result of a prolonged dry spell across much of Zimbabwe that is likely to tip the country into food crisis.

”I will now need to sell my goats and chickens to generate income,” Moyo said when IRIN visited his farm in Mhondoro-Ngezi district, about 160 kilometres south of the capital, Harare.

Many more farmers in the drought-prone south of the country are facing the same situation, with the April/May maize harvest – Zimbabwe’s staple crop – reportedly written off in entire districts.

An initial assessment in February estimated that 23 percent of cultivated land failed to produce a crop. But a new report by a UN and NGO consortium called the Food and Nutrition Survey Working Group says more than half of Zimbabwe’s farms could be affected.

Rural households in the south could produce “next to nothing this season,” according to the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Network (FEWS NET).

“In the absence of any assistance, households will likely be in ‘crisis’ [defined as at least 20 percent of households facing high or above usual acute malnutrition] from July through September,” FEWS NET warned.

Confirmation of the extent of the problem will come with the release of the joint government-UN agency Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment, due possibly as early as next month.

“We don’t have precise figures, but we do have indications of a looming food crisis,” World Food Programme spokesman David Orr told IRIN.

According to the Food and Nutrition Survey Working Group report, maize prices in the drought-hit south are already climbing – up 44 percent from February to March in Gwanda, Beitbridge and Mangwe.

After a good season last year, Zimbabwe’s farmers have been hit by a string of unfortunate weather events. First, the rains were late in coming, then there was bad flooding in western Mashonaland, and now an extended dry period in the south.

Trying to cope

With little to harvest, farmers in Mhondoro-Ngezi district hang around the town centre. The conversation inevitably revolves around how to make ends meet for the rest of the year.

Among some young men IRIN spoke to, the idea of working in South Africa still held some attraction. But others shot it down, worried by last month’s outbreak of xenophobic violence that targeted foreigners, especially Zimbabweans.

Botswana, Mozambique or Namibia came up as alternatives, but in some of the debates IRIN witnessed, older people were urging young men to stay and look at local income-generating options.

“Goats and chickens were not affected in a big way and these are what we need to sell and exchange for maize to enable us to survive,” said 82-year-old Ambuya Tambudzayi. “If we all planted [drought-resistant] small grains, we would be able to cope with food shortages as they can thrive in a dry climate such as ours.”

Orr said the traditional lean months are November to March, when livestock is often sold in the tight stretch to the new harvest.

“But there is anecdotal evidence of farmers selling cattle and other assets now to tide themselves over; it’s extremely unusual at this period of the season,” he noted. 

The Zimbabwean government says it needs to import 700,000 tonnes of maize to avert food shortages. Other estimates suggest that figure actually needs to be around 900,000 tonnes.

The private Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe has secured 600,000 tonnes of maize from Zambia at a cost of US $120 million, Tafadzwa Musarara, association president, told IRIN.

For the cash-strapped Zimbabwean government, “paying for maize imports will be a big challenge unless they divert funds from elsewhere, which could prove to be embarrassing,” said economist John Robertson. “(The) Government is failing to pay for many services and I believe it may leave the issue of food imports to the private sector.”

Zimbabwe’s economy has been in freefall since a government of national unity between ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change expired in 2013.