Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Zimbabwe Stocks Shelves With Corn That Most Struggle to Buy

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In January, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s government reversed a ban on private imports of corn as a drought looked set to slash harvests. Poor Zimbabweans like Jessica Musoni will struggle to afford it.

Musoni is one of millions of people in Zimbabwe’s rural areas enduring the worst drought in more than a decade that’s left the country with a 700,000 metric ton-corn deficit, about half of annual consumption. Income from vegetables that Musoni grows and sells at a street stall barely allow her to buy the staple food of corn meal, that’s boiled into a dish known locally as sadza.

“People can import food, yes,” Musoni, 68, said in an interview from her home in Mvurwi, a farming town in northern Zimbabwe. “But can we afford to buy it? No.”

The drought comes after a political and economic crisis that halved the size of the economy since 2000 and has now left 1.5 million Zimbabweans, or about 15 percent of the population, facing food shortages, according to an assessment by Fewsnet, an organization that provides warnings about food insecurity.

“What you will see is people buying less of everything else so that they can afford corn,” John Robertson, an independent economist based in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, said by phone on Aug. 12. “People will limit buying to corn and nothing else.”

Tipping Point

Food remains widely available and the situation isn’t at the tipping point of “disaster,” Agriculture Minister Joseph Made said in a phone interview on Aug. 13. Private companies have already imported more than 100,000 tons of corn this year, adding to a domestic supply estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization at about 950,000 tons.

In April, the government scrapped a rule that fixed the procurement price of corn at $390 a ton, the FAO said. White corn for delivery in December was trading at 3,044 rand ($236) a ton on the South African Futures Exchange in Johannesburg.

Customers are “buying extremely frugally because there’s no money out there,” Vinod Patel, who has a grocery shop in Mvurwi, said in an interview on Aug. 10.

Weakening consumer demand, government cost-cutting and a liquidity squeeze as banks hold back on lending are dragging down prices. Annual consumer prices fell 2.8 percent in July, with food declining 3.7 percent, according to the statistics agency.

Land Reform

The country’s agriculture sector is recovering from an often violent government-backed land-seizure campaign that began in 2000.

Most white-owned commercial farmers were stripped of their land to resettle black subsistence farmers in a redistribution program meant to correct the legacy of colonialism. The turbulence of the takeovers devastated the output of food including corn, of which Zimbabwe was once Africa’s second-biggest exporter, and more lucrative export crops like tobacco and cut roses.

The government last month cut its 2015 economic growth forecast by more than half to 1.5 percent, from 3.2 percent, citing the drought, which cut farming output by 8.2 percent.

Sitting in the shade of his thatched hut in Zimbabwe’s northern Guruve district, wearing faded overalls from a mining job decades ago, Sam Goredema, 72, said life has never been harder.

He, like many of his neighbors, are relying on remittances sent by mobile phone from family and friends living abroad, from United Nations workers in Haiti to bankers in London and restaurant waiters in neighboring South Africa.

“My first-born son sends money from Britain by Western Union, then my other son distributes it to me and his sister,” Goredema said. His cut of $100 a month pays for two meals a day.

“Every cent must go to upfu, there’s no money to spare for anything else,” he said, using the local term for uncooked corn meal. “If I have money, I buy upfu.”