The broke government is racing against time to plug a huge maize deficit which has left a third of the population on the brink of starvation. This comes as it emerged that cabinet on Tuesday spent over four hours battling to find solutions to the crippling crisis.
The maize shortage is occurring at a time the authorities are struggling to contain a worsening economic implosion, rising inflation and currency volatility.
More than five million Zimbabweans -- about a third of the population -- are in dire need for food aid, according to United Nations (UN) figures released last month.
Agriculture minister Perence Shiri gave a long and detailed report outlining problems the country is facing in trying to address the 1,2 million tonne grain deficit in cabinet on Tuesday.
Shiri told the meeting that government's plan to cover the deficit using the local mop-up plan has dismally failed because farmers are not willing to deliver their crop to the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) because of the unsustainably low producer price of ZW$1 400 per ton.
"It's an issue which has been consuming the most time in cabinet meetings in recent weeks because government has realised it is facing a big crisis. Shiri reported that hopes of raising 300 000 tonnes of maize by mopping up the local market have fallen apart as farmers are delivering only 12 000 tonnes per month which is insufficient. So the idea now is to turn to the foreign markets, but, even there, there are serious challenges being faced," a minister said in an off-the-record briefing to the Zimbabwe Independent yesterday.
The minister said government's grain importation deal with Tanzania, which was sealed during the visit to Harare by the East African nation's President John Magufuli in May, is hanging by a thread after that country increased its maize price from US$250 to US$483 per tonne on the back of surging demand.
Government has so far paid for an initial 17 000 tonnes of maize.
Shiri is said to have told his colleagues that when he approached the Tanzanian Strategic Grain Reserve (SGR), he was informed the price had dramatically risen by 51,8%, implying government would require US$40 million to import the 83 000 tonnes of maize.
The total amount of maize import agreed between Harare and Dodoma was 700 000 tonnes. With government having already secured 17 000 tonnes, it is left with
683 000 tonnes, which would cost a total of US$330 million.
A source said Shiri told cabinet that he was scheduled to travel to the Tanzanian capital today to negotiate a lower price, but cancelled the trip in order to attend the burial of the late war veteran, Dominic Martin Mavhunga, who was based in Mashonaland Central province where he is the most senior politburo member.
The cabinet meeting reportedly explored alternative sources of grain and it was suggested that Shiri, working with his Foreign Affairs and International Trade counterpart Sibusiso Moyo, should engage the services of companies experienced in overseas procurement for assistance.
The two were also tasked with the responsibility of identifying such companies and reporting to cabinet at its next sitting.
"It was suggested that government should engage two companies to help procure grain from overseas after Tanzania remarkably increased the price of its maize.
The ball was then left squarely in Finance minister Mthuli Ncube's court to find ways of funding the maize imports as a matter of urgency.
"On his part, Ncube said the Treasury coffers were dry but he would do everything to raise the necessary funds.
"Shiri also reported that a team of senior officials in his ministry was in Tanzania where they are having meetings with their counterparts there. But from the look of things, it is highly unlikely that a deal to reduce the price will be reached, hence the decision by cabinet to look elsewhere for grain," a source said.
Zimbabwe, formerly known as Africa's bread-basket, requires 2,2 million tonnes of grain a year to feed its people and livestock, but only managed 760 000 tonnes in the 2018/19 farming season, according to figures from the Zimbabwe National Statistical Agency.