The country's latest crisis is not a natural disaster, but may be the result of corruption and incompetence
Nearly a decade after embarking on a controversial land reform programme, Zimbabwe, once a regional breadbasket, is now suffering acute food shortages. In May 2013, its agriculture-based economy imported more than 150,000 metric tonnes of grain from neighbouring Zambia, at a price tag of $25 million. Maize is a staple for Zimbabwe, which consumes 2.2 million tonnes annually.
"Matters of food security are also matters of national security," said Martin Dinha, central governor of Mashonaland. "We have a disaster."
But shortages are an opportunity for some. Mines Minister Obert Mpofu was accused of distributing 30 metric tonnes of "quality maize" to drought-stricken Matebeleland ahead of the recent elections. He had reportedly acquired the grain at a "give-away" price, and distributed it among villagers - though it turned out to be rotten.
Ironically, it is not only in the drought-stricken areas of Midlands, Matebeleland, and Masvingo - where annual shortages are exacerbated by climate change - that this kind of deterioration is taking hold.
Provinces within Mashonaland, which receive good rainfall and produce large quantities of grain, have seen the grain rot through man-made circumstances.
"Our agricultural policies are not friendly to people," said Dinha.
According to United Nations World Food Programme country director Felix Bamezon, "during the peak hunger period of January to March 2013, approximately 19 percent of Zimbabwe's 13 million population were estimated to be in need of food assistance".
A significant part of the problem lies not with production, but with the parastatal Grain Marketing Board (GMB), mandated to store maize for consumption and to manage the national strategic grain reserve. In 2012, GMB admitted a loss of 55,000 tonnes of maize due to water damage. As a result, the rotten grain was sold as stock feed, at a loss of $6m.
In January, several more metric tonnes of the national strategic reserve were declared "unfit for human consumption".
Albert Mandizha, GMB general manager, also expressed concern that reserves were being depleted: "The truth is that we do not have enough maize." The country has begun importing grain had to stave off the worst effects of a food crisis.
But alleged incompetence, corruption, and mismanagement appear to have added to the nation's food insecurity.
Several staff within the industry would only speak on condition of anonymity. One senior worker at Lions Den depot, about 135km north-west of Harare, said that a lack of timely inspections had led to poor practice. "It is mandatory that stored maize be transferred from one bin to the other to minimise the chances of the maize going bad," they said.
Another senior official said that maize storage "must be 12 percent moisture content or below", but grain which should have been rejected was somehow approved for storage. "The country is losing out financially," he said, "but no action is being taken against the perpetrators."
Another claimed that more than a few of the GMB's 44 depots and grain silos were cracked and leaking, forcing the maize to go bad. The lack of transportation vehicles, causing delays in the movement of grain also resulted in the deterioration of quality.
While GMB has reportedly battled to raise money from the Treasury to pay communal farmers for their grain - pegged at $260 per tonne, downgraded or rotten maize ends up being sold at a loss of $120 per tonne.
"The maize that was sold to mainly stock feed was less than the amount that GMB had paid to farmers," said a former manager. "This forced the company to sink deeper financially."
Eddie Cross, an economist and policy adviser, blamed the grip upon the industry held by the loss-making organisation. "The GMB has a total monopoly over maize grain imports, purchases and sales, enforced by the military and the police," he said.
Cross referred to the role played by army from 2008, where road blocks prevented the movement of grain from one depot and farm to the next.
"We have military intelligence officers who are spying on GMB general workers, and this makes it hard to exchange documents and information, even where it should be public knowledge," added an officer in Chegutu, a depot in Mashonaland West, situated about 135km north-east of Harare .
Moses Jiri, Chairman of the Parliamentary Portfolio committee on Agriculture, stated that GMB officials were called to a public meeting about the maize but, "they could not reveal actual tonnage to us. It is unfortunate they did not cooperate on such important issue of national food security". Jiri went on to say that the food which could have helped a nation in dire straits was "lost to the incompetence of senior officials".
But it has been alleged that quality was sometimes deliberately downgraded by middlemen who purchased the grain cheap - before selling it on at higher values.
The brother of a senior army official, Major-General Douglas Nyikayaramba - who spearheaded Operation Maguta - is the prime suspect behind the "looting of 'rotten" maize" at depots around the province, GMB officials in Mashonaland West claimed.
Operation Maguta was established in 2005, using top army officers to assist in technical farming assistance to resettled farmers and to boost food production. It reportedly became the "spring board" of the alleged corruption within the GMB, leading the Board to lose it financial sustainability.
The mechanism was simple. Maize would be declared rotten. "The army official's brother would get the so-called rotten maize from depots at cheaper prices. This was, in turn, resold to GMB at higher prices," said a senior manager in the loss and control department at Chinhoyi depot, 115km north-west of Harare.
"As a middleman, he operated from a well-organised system connected to top managers. Juniors would take orders to sell him the maize as a private buyer. He had runners who facilitated everything."
Rather than the communal farmers, who are owed grain payments by GMB, middlemen received first the cut of the maize cake. A senior officer from the Mhangura depot explained, "they are not well known farmers, but deliver [the] bulk of the maize".
Some of the middlemen claimed they were doing it on behalf of NGOs. Although some buyers say they acquired grain from street markets, one told this reporter: "They get the bulk of it from GMB when it is declared unfit for human consumption, and is labelled as stock-feed."
Meanwhile, GMB is losing its purchasing power. Desperate communal farmers in areas such as Hurungwe, one of the country's most productive grain districts, snub the GMB's near monopoly. Instead they prefer to sell the produce directly to middlemen. "I am selling the maize on streets because GMB does not pay on time," said Nyarai Matenga, of Chibara, 290km north-west of Harare. "Street buyers have money ready."
Karoi, a town about 204km north-west of Harare, is awash with maize buyers and sellers, who operate outside the GMB depot located less than 3km away.
"We are getting more and more maize from communal farmers daily who no longer have faith in [the] GMB - who never pay on time," said one buyer.
A 2010 USAID report described Zimbabwe's maize market as "in disarray, with little structure, limited trust or information, few stakeholders, and restricted finance.
"Human maize consumption data is not readily available. Neither population data nor per capita consumption has been reliably assessed for at least five years."
The report further reported that uncertainty hovers over Zimbabwe's agricultural markets.
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has acknowledged the crisis. "The food situation in our country has worsened as the number of people unable to meet their daily food requirements increased by 21 percent since 1995," he said.
But little is being done to change the situation, and at least before the results of this month's election kicks in, Zimbabwe's man-made crisis is unlikely to change.
- Research for this article was carried out thanks to funding from FAIR, the Forum for African Investigative Reporters.