Govt bureaucracy to blame for wheat shortages: Experts

HARARE - Agriculture experts have blamed the government’s snail pace in implementing the new agriculture policy as one of the major reasons of looming wheat shortages in the country.

The country is facing a severe wheat deficiency after farmers abandoned the crop due to constant power cuts and lack of support from the government.

Zimbabwe requires 400 000 tonnes of wheat annually and has struggled to feed itself since President Robert Mugabe began a drive to seize white-owned farms to resettle landless blacks in 2000.

Over the last decade, local producers have managed to produce up to 260 000 metric tonnes of wheat from about 65 000 hectares, with the balance being imported.

A new agricultural policy, which has been crafted for nearly a decade now, is expected to boost food production by addressing issues restraining agricultural development chief among them being elusive, expensive and short-term funding.

Action Aid thematic head for food security and emergencies Joel Musarurwa said the country must move with speed to replace the outdated agriculture policies to help stimulate growth in the sector.

“There is need for a deliberate coordinated approach to link all industries with agriculture. If we say that the sector is the mainstay of the economy, then government must have a new policy to link various sectors to agriculture,” he said.

Musarurwa said due to a non-coordinated approach with different line ministries, Zimbabwe will be forced to import wheat to avert acute shortages.

“Sadly, there does not appear to be an acceptance that there is a relationship between the performance of agriculture and that of manufacturing, in general, and agro-processing. Development policies are still not coordinated between agriculture, industry and trade.”

Peter Gambara, an agricultural economist said Zimbabwe needs a national effort to be able to meet its wheat requirements.

“At the moment, the efforts are fragmented, and government’s efforts are poorly coordinated and sometimes announced late. The producer price should also be announced on time and money made available to buy the crop so that farmers are motivated to grow the crop again.”

Gambara said most farmers are leaving wheat production due to the incessant power outages as the power utility, Zesa, is failing to generate enough electricity to sustain the eight-hour cycle needed for irrigating wheat.

“Wheat in Zimbabwe is grown in winter and as such it has to be irrigated and traditionally farmers have always used electricity to pump the water from its source onto the field,” he said.

“However, over the past few years electricity availability has not been reliable due to the load shedding that the Zimbabwe Electricity Distribution Transmission Company (ZEDTC) carries out during the winter period. Although ZETDC has always promised to set aside electricity for the farmers to irrigate the crop, the promises do not materialise with framers still experiencing load shedding.”

Gambara said farmers have also complained that ZETDC charges for electricity were too high with figures of $700 per hectare being alleged.

In its monthly update the African Development Bank (AfDB) highlighted that wheat production in the 2012 season was been marred by several challenges with the main ones being the prolonged power cuts and poor access to finance.

“Farmers needed between $350 and $400 to fund the production of one hectare of wheat (for inputs and labour, excluding power). On the cost build-up, the power utility, Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa) is charging $0,14 per kilowatt per hour for electricity,’ said the AfDB.

Early in the year government  promised a $20 million facility for the wheat planting season. The facility was, however, marred by reports that most farmers were not able to access vouchers with which to access the inputs from the Grain Marketing Board (GMB), leaving many farmers unable to start their preparations.

“Wheat is normally planted starting around May 1 each year and by that time most farmers will not have harvested their summer crops.

“However, those who grow soyabeans in rotation to wheat can sometimes remove the soyabeans in time for the planting period. This therefore presents a problem of funding of the wheat crop,” said Gambara.

He added that: “Due to the numerous problems associated with the crop, most banks now shun sponsoring growing of the crop. If farmers cannot secure funding on time, they abandon growing the crop. The solution here lies in providing adequate funding for the winter wheat crop and this can come from government or the private sector.

There is need for this funding to be mobilised and availed on time.”

The impending wheat shortages, which are slowly affecting millers and bakeries with adverse consequences on food security and employment, have forced the government to suspend import duty on wheat flour to be used for blending purposes.

Gambara said under the current environment it was not easy to grow wheat that will yield 400 000 metric tonnes.

At an average yield of five tonnes per hectare, that requires the country to grow 80 000 hectares.

“The most we have grown as a country is about 60 000 hectares. It therefore requires a massive mobilising exercise and a lot of incentives to woo farmers back into wheat growing so that we can reach a minimum of 60 000 hectares.

“The wheat we grow requires some blending which has to be imported for it to produce flour that can make good bread, therefore traditionally we have always imported about 20 percent of our requirements.” - John Kachembere

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