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ZIMBABWE will import over one million tonnes of the staple grain at a cost of more than US$200 million to avert hunger in most parts of the country following a disastrous 20142015 summer cropping season, the Financial Gazette can report.Cabinet has already authorised the Agriculture Ministry, led by Joseph Made, in conjunction with the Finance Ministry, to make contingent plans so that people in areas worst hit by the drought do not starve between now and the next harvest, after this one, around April 2016.

Nonetheless, there is pressure on government to declare the food situation a national disaster to enable it to receive donor support, especially from the World Food Programme (WFP) — the world’s largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger.

On its own, government is unable to raise the cash needed to fund the grain deficit, with economists saying the situation was an indictment on the inability to plan by Made and his officers in the Agriculture Ministry.

Government is presently surviving from hand-to-mouth because the revenue being generated from taxes, in the absence of balance of payments support from multilateral lenders, is not sufficient to take care of its needs.More than 80 percent of it is going towards salaries with little being allocated towards the critical area of infrastructural development.

Even that bit for salaries trickles in dribs and drabs, resulting in a situation whereby pay dates for those employed in the civil service have become unpredictable.

Experts said government must make efforts to attract donor funding and invite civil society organisations to share the burden of financing imports and feeding those in need of food handouts.

Estimates indicate that one million tonnes of grain would be required to bridge the gap.

Crops in the southern half of the country of Masvingo, Matabeleland South, Midlands and southern parts of Manicaland have already wilted.

Crop assessments from government indicate that at least 300 000 hectares of maize is a complete write-off, making it difficult for the country to achieve anything close to the 1,8 million tonnes it requires to feed itself every year.

The Meteorological Services Department (MET)’s forecasted normal to above normal rainfall for the 201415 summer cropping season has turned to be a disaster as rains were so unevenly distributed that they were not good enough for any meaningful agricultural activity.

The 201415 rainfall season was characterised by a late start of rainfall in most areas and widespread flooding in most flood prone areas.

In some places, rainfall was received as late as end of December 2014 and when it finally came, it came in torrents.

Widespread floods were experienced in most flood prone areas in what the government has described as the “worst in many years”.

The floods have significantly affected crop production prospects for 2015.

Reports from farmers unions indicate that even the maize producing areas may require food assistance from government.

This is particularly true for the northern parts of the country where crops have reached permanent wilting stage in some areas.

The MET Department last week declared that the rainfall season had abruptly ended after the summer cropping season started unusually late.

Given the unfolding disaster, unofficial preliminary estimates indicate that the country may require more than US$200 million to avoid serious hunger, especially in the southern parts of the country where prospects of any meaningful harvest have diminished.

Currently, the landing price for maize (import parity price) is US$220 per tonne although the International Grains Council on Monday quoted a price of US$183 per tonne for maize.

The importation of maize will drain more cash from the country’s economy, worsening the liquidity situation.

The Bankers Association of Zimbabwe estimates that direct imports of maize and wheat since 1999 have cost the country US$3,3 billion as of last year.

Further imports can only worsen the current account deficit which surpassed US$16 billion, cumulatively, between 2011 and 2014.

While some experts said it was too early to establish how much maize the country will finally harvest, the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) said there was a very high probability that between 750 000 and 800 000 tonnes of maize would be harvested, indicating some 40 percent drop on last year’s 1,4 million tonnes.

Estimates by the CFU are in the same region with those from the Zimbabwe Farmers Union (ZFU).

ZFU president, Abdul Nyathi, this week said production for 2015 was likely to be half of last year’s production of 1,4 million tonnes.

“With the situation on the ground we are expecting 50 percent (700 000 tonnes) of the crop produced in 2014. But we urge our farmers to start making preparations for next season, which is winter and also gear up for the 20152016 season,” Nyathi said.

Asked in Parliament last week by Goromonzi legislator Beatrice Nyamupinga on the country’s preparedness in terms of food security, Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa said Cabinet agreed that there was need to import grain in the wake of a highly possible severe drought.

Cabinet has already tasked the Finance Ministry to mobilise funds to import grain.

However, there are concerns that the cash-strapped government, which is currently struggling to pay civil servants, faces a mammoth task especially given the fact that it is saddled with a US$10 billion debt burden.

Government is also yet to pay for grain delivered by local farmers to the State-run Grain Marketing Board (GMB) over the past few years.

Farmers have been boycotting selling their maize to GMB which has largely contributed to the collapse of the country’s grain reserves that should contain at least 500 000 tonnes of grain at any given point.

CFU director, Olivier Hendrick has warned that most of the country’s usual suppliers of grain, like South Africa, Zambia and Malawi, may not be able to export to Zimbabwe.

South Africa’s best producing regions experienced difficulties during the growing season so they are contemplating banning exports.

South Africa, according to reports, is set to harvest its smallest maize crop in eight years because of severe drought conditions in large production areas which could lead to white maize shortages.

White maize production is expected to fall by as much as 39 percent to 4,696 million tonnes while yellow maize is expected to fall by 24 percent to 4,968 million tonnes.

“In Malawi, because of the floods, they will not be exporting any grain. Zambia has imposed an export ban and will not be exporting,” Hendrick said.

This means that Zimbabwe will have to look further afield to either Brazil or the United States, which will make the landing price of the grain much dearer than the estimated US$220 per tonne.

Economist, Vince Museve, this week echoed calls that the Minister of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development, Made, should resign.

“In my view the Minister of Agriculture has failed to deliver and should resign. This happens every year we never plan ahead and over estimate production and, at the end of the day, the consumer pays (for the ineptitude),” Museve said

Made assumed office as Agriculture Minister in 2000, the period the governing party embarked on chaotic land reforms, which decimated production in the agricultural sector.

Despite coming from a technocratic background, having been the chief executive officer of the Agricultural Rural Development Authority, he has been accused of compounding the destruction of the sector through some of his policies.

Since his appointment 15 years ago, he has always projected bumper harvests year-in-year out, at times based on rudimentary assessments, like aerial views of the crop situation from a helicopter.

Recently, former Hurungwe West legislator, Temba Mliswa, fired a salvo at Made in Parliament, calling for his resignation.

Economist, John Robertson, said Part of the reason Zimbabwe’s economy is struggling is that it has been using scarce money to import food that it should have grown for itself.

“This year it will cost the country about US$250 million, but the growing shortages could force the price even higher. Over the 17 years since the land reform programme was announced, at an average of about US$150 a tonne and an average of about one million tonnes needed every year, Zimbabwe has spent more than US$2,5 billion on maize alone. If those imports had not been necessary, Zimbabwe could have settled its debts to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the African Development Bank,” he said.

According to the WFP, it is still too early to tell the extent of the problem at this stage in the absence of proper assessments.

“The First Round Crop and Livestock Assessment which shows the extent of the cropped area is yet to be released while the Second Round Crop and Livestock Assessment which shows the yield has not yet been finalised. The number of people in need will only be revealed by the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment rural livelihood report, which is usually completed in MayJune every year,” the WFP said.

Despite all pointers indicating a major staple grain deficit that will most likely trigger hunger, some are still optimistic.

Most farmers in the maize producing regions of Mashonaland and Manicaland areas are crossing their fingers for miracle late rains which the MET Department said may be isolated.

But hope is fast dwindling as crop fields begin to experience moisture stress at the most critical stage of tusselling.

eMkambo, an organisation that prides itself in helping to provide feasible solutions for the sustainability of agribusiness through knowledge and technology generation and transfer, this week said while policymakers and formal institutions were quick to pronounce a drought on the basis of poor seasonal maize production, indigenous commerce looks at the performance of a wide range of commodities in people’s markets such as Mbare, Malaleni, Sakubva, Kudzanayi and Garikayi, among others.

“The majority of smallholder farmers who provide commodities to people’s markets are now aware that in order to remain viable, they have to juggle more than three variables. While policymakers and formal institutions are still promoting technical solutions, farmers and traders are embracing adaptive solutions… According to these actors, Zimbabwean agriculture is many times more than a single crop like maize. Unless a collective approach to agriculture development is taken, most commodities will continue failing to meet their full potential,” eMkambo said.

Source : Financial Gazette

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