EDITORIAL COMMENT: Prompt food imports will prevent hunger Prof Mthuli Ncube

The 2018/19 agricultural season was a bad one, resulting in the country harvesting less maize than the amount required for national consumption per year.

The Southern Africa Regional Climate Outlook Forum (SARCOF), projected in August last year that most countries in the region would receive normal to below normal rainfall because of the El Nino weather phenomenon.  Indeed the forecast came to pass in Zimbabwe as in its neighbours.  This was the second El Nino event to hit Southern Africa in three years after the one in the 2015/16 season resulted in Zimbabwe’s worst drought in 25 years.  The drought left four million people hungry and killed more than 19 000 cattle.  It is clear that because of the changing climate, droughts are getting more frequent, rendering more and more people food insecure. 

The Government has, in recent months, been conducting a crop and livestock assessment to more authoritatively ascertain the amount of food to be harvested this year and the number of people who will need food aid until the next harvest in March 2020.  Cyclone Idai, which ravaged Chipinge and Chimanimani in Manicaland Province in March, has exacerbated the challenge given that hundreds of families in the two districts were left with nothing after their homes and fields were washed away by severe flooding.  

As we await the details of the study, which should cover the impact of Cyclone Idai on food supply, the Government has started working on measures to import about 700 000 tonnes of maize needed to feed the hungry until harvest time next year. 

Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi told Senators during the Question and Answer session on Thursday last week:

“The President said no one will starve but this year we have experienced drought which means we have a low harvest. As of now, in our granaries, we have approximately 560 000 metric tonnes including the 500 000 strategic reserve; which means our supplies are low. The department of agriculture has already started asking for tenders so that we will be able to import about 700 000 metric tonnes of maize so that we cover the gap which we are anticipating after our harvest in order that we get to the next season,” said Minister Ziyambi.

Finance and Economic Development Minister, Professor Mthuli Ncube told Parliament on Wednesday this week that the Government has now issued out the tender through the Grain Marketing Board to import additional food to deal with the impact of the drought. 

It is gratifying that the Government has started working on the modalities of importing food aid so early.  The early start will ensure that the logistics of bringing the food into the country are worked out early and distribution to the needy across the country should be early as well.  If this happens as it should, the food shortage will not degenerate into a crisis and no one will starve.  We know that in the past few years, some needy people in some parts of the country have actually been forced to spend a day or two without food because of inefficiencies in its procurement and distribution.  This is regrettable and profoundly dehumanising thus must not be allowed to happen again.

The cost implications of importing 700 000 tonnes of maize are considerable but the Second Republic will, in our view, have no problem pooling together the resources to be able to bring the food into the country and to the needy.  As a matter of fact, Prof Ncube, in his Parliament remarks, indicated that a portion of the budget surplus that the Government is realising, would be spent on procurement of food for the hungry.

However, the Government cannot bear the burden alone.  Non-governmental organisations (NGO) and the UN have started rolling out their own response strategies.  For example, in February the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation issued a regional appeal while the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs issued a call for food aid specifically for our country.  The FAO appeal for US$67, 9 million is meant to mobilise food for 4, 9 million people covering the period from December 2018 to December 2019.  

Both calls for assistance will attract a positive response as has been the case in previous years of food deficits but there will be an obvious need for FAO to extend the period beyond December this year since farmers only start harvesting around March 2020.  

Considering the timely beginning of the Government’s response to the food shortage and the assistance that we are sure will come from the UN and the NGO sector, no one will face hunger this year.   

However, it is critical for the Government, its partners as well as the farmers themselves to broaden their focus towards food security beyond this season.  

Zimbabwe has the highest number of dams in southern Africa.  Regrettably much of the dammed water is not used for irrigation purposes.  As we have always said, the country must strengthen its irrigation capacity so that in years when we receive poor rains as we did in the 2015/16 and 2018/19 seasons, that will not result in food shortage as the irrigated crop almost always does well. 

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