Hunger Stalks Zimbabwe as Drought With Floods Hit Food Crops

Pointing at the scorching sun over his village in southern Zimbabwe, Simon Sibaya blames drought, rising fertilizer prices and a lack of government support for leaving 2.2 million of his fellow citizens in need of food aid.

“Even the goats are suffering,” Sibaya, 76, said as he sat under the eaves of his thatched mud hut in Matabeleland South province. “We need food more than ever. This is a dry place always, but last season what few crops we had failed.”

Five months after President Robert Mugabe won elections to extend his 33-year rule, the southern African nation faces its biggest food shortages since 2008. Last season’s crop of corn, the nation’s staple, was poleaxed first by flooding and then by drought.

Corn production fell to 800,000 metric tons this year, less than half of what the country needs, compared with 1.4 million tons two years ago, according to a Sept. 3 report by the government-run Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee. Average prices for the grain have jumped to 53 cents a kilogram (2.2 pounds) from 33 cents a year ago, according to the report.

“There is a critical food shortage in the country and government is trying to import food together with some non-governmental organizations,” Permanent Secretary for Public Service Ngoni Masoka told lawmakers on Nov. 18. “We have a plan for a major food deficit mitigation program.”

Agriculture Decimated

Zimbabwe has imported about 130,000 tons of corn since May 1 from neighboring South Africa alone, according to South African Grain Information Service data. That’s more than in any full season since 2008-09. Zambia has also pledged to ship 150,000 tons of corn to Zimbabwe, the African Development Bank said in an Sept. 17 report.

Once a major corn exporter in the region, Zimbabwean agriculture was decimated by violent government-backed land invasions starting in 2000 that dispossessed white commercial farmers of about 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres). That triggered a 40 percent reduction in the economy over the next eight years. Inflation soared to 500 billion percent in 2008, according to the International Monetary Fund. About 620,000 farmworkers were left unemployed and driven from their homes, according to Harare-based lobby group Justice for Agriculture.

With the state-run Grain Marketing Board too cash-strapped to pay for food staples and the potential for higher returns over a shorter season, small-scale farmers have shifted toward cash crops. Production of tobacco, most of which is grown by small-scale farmers, rose to 166.7 million kilgrams this year, from 48.3 million kilograms in 2008, according to the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association. It earned the country about $612 million.

Hungry Children

The number of people in need of cereals, vegetable oil and pulses doubled in two years to 2.2 million, or a quarter of the rural population, according to the government survey of 10,797 households, which was supported by international aid agencies including the United Nations World Food Programme.

Four in 10 children under the age of five only eat twice a day and probably don’t get enough nutrients for optimum growth, the survey showed. Zimbabwe ranked 172 out of 187 countries on this year’s UN Human Development Index.

The southern Beitbridge and Mwenezi districts are among Zimbabwe’s driest. Corn and sorghum crops sit withered in the 35 degree celsius heat while goats clamber through thorny scrub, gingerly eating tiny leaves as they forage.

Land Reform

Sibaya, one of the thousands of black Zimbabweans who benefitted from Mugabe’s land reform by receiving a small-scale farm, says there’s no grass for livestock to eat.

Farmers have been hampered by prohibitively expensive fertilizer and pesticide costs, since the recession destroyed domestic manufacturing of the inputs, according to David Phiri, southern African coordinator for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Banks have neither had the money nor appetite for risk to back farmers over a long and unpredictable corn season, Phiri said in a Nov. 25 phone interview from Harare, the capital.

“The problem with food crops is there’s no commercial incentive for businesses to assist small farmers like myself,” said Gaston Ncube, 44, a small-scale sorghum farmer who lives 30 miles northwest of Beitbridge. “If you grow cotton or tobacco, buyers will provide finance for fertilizer and seed, but for crops that are for home consumption or the informal market, no, they obviously won’t lend.”

Farm Subsidies

While peasants suffer, food prices have fallen in the cities, where most people use the U.S. dollar, while the South African rand, which is used for most imports, has weakened. In the past year food inflation has reversed from an annual 5.2 percent to -0.7 percent, according to the African Development Bank.

To prevent another food crisis, the government is preparing once-off farming input subsidies for 1.6 million households for next year, Phiri said.

Some farmers remain unconvinced.

“Even though rivers flooded we had no rain here,” Sibaya said. “It’s a long time since government helped with inputs for farming, but that’s how it is these days.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.