Mutare — Zimbabwe is facing severe and widespread food shortages. 1.7 million Zimbabweans currently require food aid and some fear the situation will get even worse before the next harvest in April.
"The situation is really bad. Many people are going for days without proper meals", Nekias Mkwindidza, a village elder from Zimunya, about 50 km south of Mutare, tells Think Africa Press.
In Buhera district, Jane Sithole reveals that some are now surviving on porridge made from baobab fruits. "We're appealing to the government and non-governmental organisations to assist. Some children are no longer going to school because they cannot go on empty stomachs", she explains.
Tambayi Mhlanga, another villager from the Hotsprings area in Chimanimani district, explains that although the area is accustomed to droughts, this year has been particularly bad. "I am not sure whether we will make it to the next season", he says, "The future looks so bleak".
The shortages follow some of the poorest farming weather for years, but the crisis derives not just from recent, uncontrollable factors, but from some longer-term and very much man-made problems.
Too little too late?
Last November, 1.2 million hectares was planted with maize, the national staple. Although this should have been nearly enough to produce the 1.8 million tonnes Zimbabweans consume annually, the agriculture ministry only delivered seed and supplies once the rains were already well underway, a frustrating practice that has been repeated since 2000. As early as January, farmers' unions were warning that they expected to harvest just 700,000 tonnes, 1.1 million tonnes short of the required figure.
In April, Minister of Agriculture Joseph Made reported that around a third of planted crops had failed due to the lack of irrigation systems and the fact farmers were unable to buy the necessary inputs in time.
At the same conference, Finance Minister Tendai Biti made available $20 million for farmers to buy seeds, fertiliser and other agricultural inputs in a bid to boost crops, in particular wheat, and mitigate the crop failure.
Made said: "I hope in what we are doing we are correcting the situation so that never again are the inputs are delayed.... Farmers suffer the vagaries of weather. That you cannot control. The best is to assist farmers by development of irrigation."
Despite this intervention, however, the UN estimates that this year's cereals harvest was a third lower than last year, and that the number of people in need of food assistance is 60% higher than during the last lean season. The impact will be greatest between January and March next year.
World Food Programme (WFP) Country Director, Felix Bamezon said: "The United Nations World Food Programme and our partners are gearing up to respond to this large rise in food needs...Our field staff is already reporting signs of distress in rural areas, including empty granaries and farmers selling off their livestock to make ends meet."
But while the WFP's targeted assistance programme is scheduled to run until the end of March, its $119 million budget is currently facing a shortfall of approximately $85 million.
Droughts, poorly implemented policies and a shift by banks to fund tobacco and cotton instead of maize and other grains have all contributed to Zimbabwe's current situation, but to fully understand how the country reached this state of affairs from once being southern Africa's breadbasket requires us to look further back to 2000.
In 2000, as President Robert Mugabe was struggling politically for the first time, he launched a reform programme seizing land from white commercial farmers to be restored to black peasant farmers. The expropriation of the land broke apart one of the most important pillars of the Zimbabwean economy and often replaced white agriculturalists with inexperienced farmers, with insufficient planning and state support. Zimbabwe's agricultural sector has never quite recovered and this season, farmers who got free land under Mugabe's policy contributed just 16% of total maize output.
Charles Taffs, president of the Commercial Farmers Union of Zimbabwe, insists the country's predicament is self-inflicted and the result of the government's agricultural policy or lack thereof. "For the last 12 years, we haven't been feeding ourselves and the problem is that we are growing maize where it is not suitable to do so", he said. "There is no drought here. It's bad planning. The country does not have an agricultural policy."
Vice-President Joice Mujuru last week launched a new drought-tolerant maize seed variety, which could help for next season, but currently many are struggling to get by and it seems unlikely this will be enough to reform Zimbabwe's agricultural sector.
"It does not make sense to talk about the decline of agricultural output as an embarrassment", says Taffs. "It is a direct result of poor policies. Currently the land has no value and farmers cannot plan."
Andrew Mambondiyani is an award-winning Zimbabwean journalist with more than 10 years experience. He has reported extensively on political, environmental, agricultural and mining issues in Zimbabwe from the land reform program to illegal gold and diamond mining in the country. He has written for international publications, including Yale E360, a USA environmental magazine. From 2007 to 2008 he served as one of the inaugural fellows at Middlebury Fellowship on Environmental Journalism in USA.