Yoliswa Dube-Moyo, Senior Features Reporter
The number of food insecure households in Zimbabwe is expected to increase exponentially in the coming months.
Over the last few years, El Niño-induced drought conditions have led to a sharp deterioration in food security in many parts of the country.
The effects of the droughts have been devastating and debilitating to food production systems.
Prolonged lack of rain has also caused long-term environmental damage. Below-average harvests and crop failure have also diminished incomes of many households.
The global Covid-19 pandemic found the country in a crisis of sorts despite Government efforts to capacitate farmers through various programmes.
The combination of successive droughts and the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a huge blow to most farmers.
Small-scale farmers are feeling the pinch more as in most cases, they cannot afford hybrid seeds that can assist them to easily produce food.
Common climate-induced shocks, economic challenges and poverty have been further exacerbated by the devastating impact of Covid-19 on communities, which has caused severe socio-economic impacts due to loss of livelihoods and employment opportunities, remittances, as a result of lockdowns, and other movement restrictions.
On the other hand, farmers suffer consequences of the ecosystems that have been pushed to their limits by over-cultivation, overgrazing, and over-harvesting, as communities are forced to adopt measures that push the land beyond its capacity.
Poor rainfall and economic challenges saw maize production in Zimbabwe drop by 57 percent lst year.
National chairperson of the Apex Council for Youth in Agriculture Mr John Muchenje said Covid-19 has had both a negative and positive impacts on the farming society.
“The first one on the negative has been the reduction of people’s residual income in terms of buying our commodities, which means our sales have dwindled. Secondly, because of the curfew, shops have less time to sell which also means they can’t buy more of our horticultural produce. Retailers are not taking as much produce as before because they don’t have much time to sell,” said Mr Muchenje.
President Mnangagwa imposed a 6pm to 6am curfew with business hours being restricted to 8am to 3pm as part of efforts to contain the spread of the cornavirus.
Mr Muchenje said the lockdown restrictions make it difficult for farmers to move from one point to the other.
“Although government has said farming is a necessity, there are certain farmers who are being blocked by police whenever they need to move. We’re appealing to the Government to allow farmers to move around with their produce when they’re in possession of documentation from their local Agritex officers. There’re farmers that are producing their letters but they’re being harassed by the police on their way,” he said.
Subsistence farming families who make up three quarters of Zimbabwe’s population and produce most of its food are also hurting because of a third successive drought-hit harvest this year.
Zimbabwe’s experience, like elsewhere in Africa, raises questions as to the costs of a tight lockdown, particularly on the poor and marginalised, and whether there are alternative approaches both to confront the virus now and for different approaches to society and the economy in the future.
“On the positive side, the pandemic has made us realise that farming is a business that everyone can concentrate on. Looking at the rate at which people are making enquiries about farming, it shows that a lot of people have now seen that farming is a noble business that anyone can do,” said Mr Muchenje.
He highlighted that because of the lockdown restrictions, people are now concentrating on their farming businesses thereby increasing productivity.
A significant number of people used to rely on remittances either sent by bus from South Africa or in cash through transfer services like Mukuru, World Remit or Western Union. But relatives outside the country have lost their jobs and they no longer send remittances.
“This is a big problem as these funds used to pay for labour or for agricultural inputs, or for fees or groceries. It’s a big gap. For example, the tobacco harvest in Mvurwi is being delayed as there’s no money to pay for labour. To survive, everyone must become a vendor. It seems something is being sold from every house in the location, and even in the rural areas too. People stock some small things and sell,” notes agriculture researcher, Professor Ian Scoones.
Like Mr Muchenje, Prof Scoones bemoans the restrictions on agricultural markets and difficulties in moving produce.
“The police will stop you, ask for permits. It’s a total hassle. So, some farmers will move early in the morning, offloading produce in the locations where others sell. Others move in the evening and sell from their pick-up trucks. There’s always a way, even if it’s more difficult. For more formal marketing there are so many regulations,” said Prof Scoones.
On challenges regarding tobacco marketing this year he said: “A farmer representative can travel with the crop to the auction floors, but the selling is not transparent. You can’t see how it’s weighed and graded because of the coronavirus restrictions, so farmers are easily ripped off. This is disastrous as these days’ payments are only in part in forex, so you don’t get much for your crop. Alternatively, you can take your tobacco to the auction floors yourself if you’ve got a truck, but you may have to queue for days, and they will not let you on the floor because of the virus. So, there’s always cheating, and you get a bad deal. Marketing for farmers is a big challenge due to Covid-19.”
According to a report by the Sadc secretariat, close to 44,8 million people in urban and rural areas across 13 member states are food insecure.
The 2020 Synthesis Report on the State of Food and Nutrition Security and Vulnerability in Southern Africa also reveals that the number of food insecure people, lacking reliable access to sufficient quantity of nutritious food, has increased by almost 10 percent in 2020, compared with the data provided at the same time last year.
“It is likely that the projected number of the food insecure will rise further in light of the fact that the full impact of Covid-19 on the urban poor is yet to fully materialise alongside the approaching lean season between November 2020 and January 2021,” reads the report in part.
As part of its recommendations, farmers are encouraged to foster crop diversity through the promotion of diversified diets, including indigenous foods.
“This includes species diversification in livestock production, especially small ruminants that are adapted to harsh weather conditions,” says Sadc.
“Address market-related challenges for small scale farmers by such measures as improving and developing the road infrastructure to improve farmers’ access to both inputs and outputs markets as well as providing incentives for input suppliers and other service providers to move closer to the farmers.”
Governments are encouraged to promote community irrigation schemes and rainwater harvesting as well as construct dams to ensure year-round agricultural production.
“Develop resilience-building initiatives, including employment creation in rural areas, incorporating climate-smart technologies in subsidies and conservation agriculture,” reads the report. — @Yolisswa