Drought-affected Zimbabwean farmers fear famine

Standing outside her traditional wooden corn shop in western Zimbabwe, farmer Lindiwe Ncube points out the empty bays that are posing problems for her family’s future.

Last June, all five were piled with large ears of corn ready for sale. This year, only one of them is nearly full after a mid-season drought wiped out crops, leaving the 49-year-old barely enough to feed her own family.

“This season is bad, this is the season of famine,” Ncube said from her home in the village of Lucerne in the Bubi district, near the country’s second largest city, Bulawayo.

The corn on the cob is small, and I managed to collect only four bags (50 kg each). I won’t sell anything.”

Climate change is causing more severe and more frequent droughts in Zimbabwe, threatening the main corn crop. At the same time, adaptation efforts are hampered as the country grapples with an economic crisis exacerbated by the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

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Farmers in Zimbabwe have in recent years turned to sustainable practices, such as reduced tillage and the use of water-saving drip irrigation, when growing some drought-tolerant grains such as sorghum.

However, Zimbabwe’s corn production is expected to fall by 43% in the 2021-2022 season due to poor rainfall, according to a government estimate in May. Farmers were ordered to sell their crops to the state to replenish the nation’s stocks.

But many are holding on to their crops because of poor yields and low prices offered by the State Grain Marketing Board (GMB), the Commercial Farmers Union said.

Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Lands and Agriculture officials did not respond to requests from Thomson Reuters for comment on the situation. But the GMB and the land ministry recently announced a cash incentive to try and encourage farmers to ship their corn to the government.

The United Nations World Food Program said in January that more than five million Zimbabweans – a third of the population – are facing starvation, and fears are growing that a government order to sell corn will only make things worse as people grapple with the soaring cost of living.

“There are problems this year,” said Ncube, who sold 50 sacks of corn to GMB for $64,000 (about R2,800) last season. Now “my children are not allowed to go to school because I didn’t pay for them,” she said.

“I’ll have to do odd jobs like cleaning someone’s yard to raise money.”

Last month, the government ordered GMB to ensure that farmers sell their corn crop to the state after production for the 2021-2022 season was forecast at 1.56 million tons, up from last year’s record of 2.72 million tons.

Zimbabwe typically needs 2.2 million tons a year for human and livestock consumption, and officials said some grain remains in storage from last year’s harvest. However, later in May, the Lands Ministry ordered GMB to crack down on “side marketing” – referring to unofficial or black sales of corn – after only about 5,000 tons of an expected 30,000 tons were harvested.

Farmers who do not comply and sell their corn to the state risk being prosecuted, fined and have their grain confiscated, GMB said.

“Farmers leave what little they harvest for their own consumption and for livestock because you can’t sell GMB when you can’t buy grain later,” said Winston Babbage, vice president of the Commercial Farmers Union.

Harare-based economist Gift Mugano predicted that food security in rural areas would worsen if farmers were not allowed to leave the corn they had harvested.

– Thomson Foundation Reuters