Hope and crops scorched again

Garai Hokonya, 53, a smallholder farmer in Chivhu district, about 120km southwest of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, has resigned himself to the unpalatable truth that the 12 hectares of maize he planted by hand are being devastated by an unseasonal and prolonged dry spell.

"I have written off the crop and am driving the cattle and goats to graze in the fields," Hokonya told IRIN. "This is painful, because my family used zero tillage [no ploughing] to prepare part of the land due to a shortage of draught-power," he said.

A decade of food insecurity - which reached its zenith in the first quarter of 2009 when nearly 7 million people, or well over half the population, needed emergency food assistance - has taken a heavy toll on livestock. Working animals were sacrificed for food in the lean times, decimating the draught-power that small-scale farmers need to plough their fields.

In response to the shortage of animals, "and on the advice of agricultural extension workers who told us that [manual planting] was going to boost our yields", small-scale farmers dug shallow holes and planted seeds manually as a substitute for ploughing. This method was seen as ideal, as fields that have lain fallow retain nutrients and so do not require large amounts of fertilizer.

Hokonya was filled with optimism. "When we started planting, the weather was good because the rains were coming steadily [in October 2009] and there was no reason to think the situation could turn as bad as it has done." But by late December he and the neighbouring farmers were anxiously scanning the blue skies for clouds, and hope turned sour.

Zimbabwe's Meteorological Services Department has forecast the chance of good rains in the coming weeks, but Hokonya is sceptical about replanting because "these forecasts are mostly wrong, and it is now too late to think about planting a new crop."

''When we started planting, the weather was good because the rains were coming steadily [in October 2009] and there was no reason to think the situation could turn as bad as it has done''

However, even before the adverse weather, relief agencies were forecasting that about 2.2 million Zimbabweans would require food aid between January and March 2011.

The latest weather hazards assessment for Africa by USAID/Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) indicated that Zimbabwe was among several other southern African countries experiencing poor rainfall.

"Since December, below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures continue to help strengthen seasonal moisture deficits across central Mozambique, southern Malawi, southern Madagascar and southern Zimbabwe," FEWS NET said in its assessment.

Renson Gasela, a farming specialist and the former agriculture secretary of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), told IRIN: "The crop situation across the country is very bad and food security is under great threat." The provinces of Manicaland, Masvingo, Matabeleland South and Midlands are also being affected by adverse weather patterns.

"We had hoped that food imports this year would be minimal, but the weather has dealt the country a big blow and yields are going to be worse than the last main farming season," Gasela predicted.

A depleted harvest expected  

"We would say we have lost about half of what we could have harvested, even though there is need to wait a little longer to get a fuller picture of the damage done."

The Crop and Food Assessment Mission of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and UN World Food Programme projected a cereal harvest of 1.3 million tons in 2009, compared to 690,000 tons in 2008.

It was too late to replant in most parts of the country, "and even in areas where it is possible, there is no guarantee that the rains will last for long," Gasela said.

Denford Chimbwanda, president of the Grain and Cereal Producers Association (GCPA) told IRIN: "We are heading for disaster if we don't start receiving rains within a week. It is very unfortunate, because most farmers had done their best to prepare their farms and plots."

He said most farmers got fertilizers too late, at a stage when they could not apply it because of low soil moisture. "Because of the little rain that has fallen so far, farmers cannot top-dress their crops, yet this is vital."

Food inflation

Innocent Makwiramiti, a Harare-based economist, said the spectre of another poor harvest was already being seen in the maize price. "Traders have already started speculating and are responding to the looming drought by increasing the price of maize [the staple food]."

He told IRIN: "A 50kg bag ... that used to cost around US$9 is now selling for US$15; this could also push up the price of mealie-meal [maize-meal] in shops, regardless of whether it is locally produced or imported."