Zimbabwe’s deepening food crisis leaves millions seeking aid

Country suffering worst food shortage in living memory despite government efforts

Zimbabwe’s worst food crisis in living memory has deepened significantly in recent months despite an influx of international aid and government efforts to tackle local grain shortfalls brought on by drought.

Last year the Zanu-PF-led government and aid agencies estimated that 7.6 million rural and urban Zimbabweans – over half the country’s population – would require food aid to survive in 2020.

The disaster has been blamed on a major drought ruining farmers’ crops, climate change shocks and a moribund local economy that has been crippled by a political crisis that centres on the government’s legitimacy.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has committed to feeding 4.1 million of the hardest hit Zimbabweans until April, when local crops will have been harvested. Its feeding scheme will be extended after that based on the population's food aid requirements in the post-harvest environment.

However, major concerns over the government’s ability to sustain its own free food initiative for 3.5 million people emerged last November after aid agencies were made aware that its strategic grain reserves had run out.

Grain imports

Since then, Zimbabwe's president Emmerson Mnangagwa has introduced measures designed to facilitate an increase in grain importation to alleviate the local shortages.

In January, Zimbabwe permitted the importation of genetically modified grains for the first time in over a decade, with the Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe acquiring 100,000 tonnes of genetically engineered maize from South Africa and Brazil.

In addition, the government has zero-rated VAT and import duty on all basic commodities and created a “green” channel to fast-track essential food consignments through the land-locked country’s border posts.

However, informed sources in Zimbabwe told The Irish Times that even though these interventions have helped, they were not enough to deal with the widespread food shortages.

“The government is importing grain in a piecemeal fashion because it lacks funds and credibility,” a source said. “Whenever it gets a consignment the importer requires a letter of credit from a commercial bank to cover its cost in the event the government doesn’t pay up”.

The source added that the government was also forced to go to the black market to get the foreign currency it needs to pay for the grain consignments. This was because the recently reintroduced Zimbabwe dollar had lost most of its value against its US counterpart.

“The government is only buying grain shipments on a case-by-case basis because it doesn’t have the money. As a result, we fear its own feeding programmes are in disarray”.

Indeed, development agencies on the ground say the food crisis shows no sign of abating, and they are currently encountering the highest rates of malnutrition they have ever seen in the country.

Foreign debts

The government’s difficulty in supporting its own food programmes is also linked to Zimbabwe’s outstanding foreign debts of an estimated $8 billion (€7 billion), which has cut it off from acquiring loans from international finance institutions.

Any chance it has of regaining access to foreign money lenders, in the short term at least, appears slim given the IMF highlighted last week that Zimbabwe’s economic reform programme is now “off-track” due to inconsistent policy implementation.

Mr Mnangagwa’s government, which came to power in August 2018 following a disputed election, had adopted an economic reform agenda that was backed by the IMF, in the hope of being granted access to external financial support.

To make matters worse, according to WFP spokesperson for southern Africa, Gerald Bourke, Zimbabwe's harvest output for 2020 looks very low for a third year in a row because of a reduction in the hectarage planted in 2019, in conjunction with a poor rainy season.

“We are expecting a poor return from the harvest in early April. The rains only came in December when they should have arrived in October, and they did not last, so the crops people planted either withered or did not sprout,” he said.