HARARE – This week Zimbabwe will host an agricultural indaba in a bid to unlock answers to the country’s perennial food shortages.
Running under the theme: “Leveraging agricultural opportunities for economic growth,’’ the conference — hosted by the National Economic Consultative Forum and the Zimbabwe Agricultural Society, will attract speakers from the banking sector, government and development partners to map the way forward.
The southern African nation has since the turn of the millennium failed to feed itself when it embarked on a chaotic land reform programme aimed at redressing the colonial land imbalances.
Statistics from Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) indicate that agriculture used to provide employment to over 20 000 people, but when the land reform programme roared into life, close to 16 000 jobs have vanished.
During its peak, agriculture used to contribute at least 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product with sectors such as cattle ranching flourishing.
However, statistics from the United Nations-World Food Programme show that this year more than 2,2 million people will need food assistance, raising fears of starvation in an economy characterised by cash shortages.
This comes after the country is facing acute grain shortages, owing to poor harvests experienced this season.
The ministry of Agriculture’s second crop assessment report indicates that only 798 600 metric tonnes (mt) of maize were harvested in the 2013 season compared to the 968 000 metric tonnes that were harvested in 2012.
This is against a national requirement of 1,8 million mt.
The African Development Bank (AfDB) in its August monthly economic review said although government made efforts to close this huge food deficit of 1 001 400 mt by importing 150 000 mt of maize from Zambia, the deficit would be difficult to close as there is not enough grain reserves to fill the gap.
This is despite the fact that the Grain Millers Association had committed to import up to 160 000 mt to augmented government’s efforts.
“The Grain Marketing Board (GMB) had annual strategic grain reserve stocks of only 21 891 mt at the end of March 2013.
However, it has a mandate to maintain strategic grain reserves of up to a maximum of 500 000 mt,” said the regional bank.
AfDB noted that the national grain buyer faces critical challenges, such as shortages of grain storage bags and poor storage infrastructure and transport logistics.
In addition, farmers are not keen to sell their produce to the GMB as payment normally depends on the availability of funds.
They therefore end up selling their maize to private buyers who make early payments.
In the 2012/13 marketing season, the GMB received 81 190 mt from farmers.
Agriculture experts say low output in the last farming season was owing to reduced planting area in addition to the 177 605 ha (out of the 1,4 million ha that had been planted) that were written off as the result of drought.
Some farmers are now devoting increasing tracts of land to more viable crops such as tobacco.
As a result maize productivity is continuously declining evidenced by the decline in yields this season to 0,63 tonnes/hector from the 1 tonne/ha that was realised in 2012, according to the Mid-Term Fiscal Policy Statement.
Elia Majoni, a senior Agri Business Consultant with Farm Capital Ventures said government should muster the political will and come up with pragmatic policies and programmes on agriculture that would promote the livelihoods of farmers.
“Agriculture cannot survive without subsidies, even in America farmers are subsidised by government to ensure they remain in business,” he said adding that financial institutions should be compelled to give loans to farmers for the procurement of inputs on time.
Newly-appointed Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa last week said the country will invest heavily in agriculture to ensure “the country will never go hungry”.
“As a government, we are going to invest heavily in agriculture. We are going to scale up support for farmers, especially the small-holder farmer.
“Every effort is going to be made to rescue our farmers and make sure that this country will never go hungry again,” he said.
Chinamasa noted consultations were underway on the amount of support that will be provided to farmers,with funds being mobilised locally in the short-term and externally in the long-term.
“We are still discussing with stakeholders on how much we are going to avail to our farmers.
“The support to the sector compared to the import bill will be minuscule. To what extent we are going to support our farmers will depend on the availability of the resources. We are, however, certain that resources will be mobilised,” he said.
The new treasury boss hinted that the country had enough maize seed and the focus would be on sourcing adequate fertiliser.
“We might be behind time, but every effort is being made to support our farmers and we need to rescue our agriculture and our country from hunger. I want people to understand our commitment to griculture and we are going to give it the support it deserves,” he said.