Hunger stalks Zimbabweans

HARARE - A combination of perennial poor planning and adverse weather conditions threatens to unleash one of the severest food crises Zimbabwe has witnessed in the past few years, amid indications that up to 30 percent of the national food crop planted this season is a complete write off.

Zimbabwe planted nearly two million hectares of cereal crops in the 2014/2015 farming season and the government now readily admits that at least 300 000 hectares of the crop is beyond redemption following a prolonged dry spell.

Many agricultural experts say the government's estimates are grossly understated and that the actual situation on the ground in many parts of the country are a lot worse — and that urgent international assistance is needed if a disaster is to be avoided.

But Agriculture minister Joseph Made has tried to play down the impending famine, saying there is hope that the remaining 1,7 million hectares of relatively good crop, mainly in Mashonaland Central, Mashonaland West and parts of Mashonaland East will suffice.

“Maize and small grains have been severely affected by the dry spell,” Made said.

The country’s hopes of a bumper harvest were affected by a combination of typical poor national planning, floods that have affected a number of areas resulting in some crops being washed away, and irregular rainfall patterns  areas such as Midlands and Matabeleland provinces.

Some areas were also badly affected by heavy leaching, while the prolonged dry spell in others resulted in some crops wilting.

Experts say the crisis is an indictment on the Zanu PF government which, despite mouthing off high-sounding slogans on land reforms, is in effect paying lip service to its pledge to revive the country’s agricultural sector.

Under its economic blueprint, the Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation (ZimAsset), government says food security would be a major priority for the Zanu-PF administration, but no significant investments have been made into the sector since the fast-track land reform exercise took off in earnest in 2000.

The latest development has also caused economic experts to warn President Robert Mugabe's administration to implement “stronger and more pragmatic reforms” which can slam the brakes on the economic decline that has beset the country since 2000.

In the meantime, the European Union's (EU's) Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Philippe Van Damme, says there are many steps that the country can take to grow its comatose economy.

“I do not intend to list them all here, neither is it my job to do so, but the key source of growth is investment, domestic or international,” he said adding that although official development assistance could also help to create a more conducive environment for investment, it could not substitute for it.

“Attracting Foreign Direct Investment from all over the world is therefore one particularly important step in ensuring a prosperous future for Zimbabwe.

“Security of tenure and the predictability of the contractual environment, based on a clear legal framework that grants the respect of the principles of accountability, transparency and non-discrimination, and the respect of the rule of law are essential conditions to attract foreign investors,” Van Damme said.

The EU recently lifted its targeted restrictive measures on Zimbabwe, retaining only the travel bans on Mugabe and his wife Grace. It has also since resumed aid to the troubled southern African country for the first time in a decade.

In an effort to normalise relations with the West, the government embarked on an International Monetary Fund-administered staff monitored programme aimed at clearing the country’s whopping $10 billion external debt.

“This is an important first step which we fully support, but other steps will have to be undertaken in full respect of the new Constitution, to build a sound, rules-based, economic and financial environment, to consolidate macro-economic stability and to enhance public finance management,” Van Damme said.

On his part, Domenico Fanizza, the head of the IMF delegation that was in the country for the past two weeks, said the government needed strong macro-economic policies and debt relief, along with a strategy to clear arrears in order to overcome its economic challenges.

But until two years ago, Zimbabwe’s economy had during the era of the government of national unity shown signs of recovery from a decade-long downturn which saw runaway annual inflation peaking at an official percentage of 231 million.

But that post-hyperinflation rebound ended after the country’s disputed 2013 national elections, with Zimbabwe's gross domestic product now expected to grow by less than three percent this year — which is way below what is required to haul the country back from the brink.

The economy registered 10,5 percent growth in 2012 after the government trashed the local currency which had been rendered worthless by hyperinflation, only to decelerate to 3,2 percent growth in 2013 and about 3 percent in 2014.

“Growth has slowed down and we expect it to weaken further in 2015. Despite the favourable impact of lower oil prices, the external position remains precarious, and the country is in debt distress.

“The authorities are committed to intensifying their efforts to lay the ground for stronger, more inclusive and lasting economic growth. Their resolve to re-engage with the international financial community and to seek its support for the reform process is encouraging,” Fanizza said.

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