Eddie Cross, the writer of the following article, has been intimately involved and has previously held very senior positions in the agricultural industry in Zimbabwe. His in-depth knowledge gives full credence to what he has to say about the government-created staple food shortage. It is common knowledge that Zimbabwe was once known as the food basket of Southern Africa. WEBMASTER

The Emerging Food Crisis

On the 23rd November 2001, the Grain Marketing Board had 93 000 tonnes of maize left in stock. Of this about 70 per cent (64 000 tonnes) was fit for human consumption. Sales from the GMB have been running at over 20 000 tonnes a week for the past two months. Technically therefore, today - the 19th of December, GMB stocks will be virtually exhausted.

In the past three weeks the standard product of the maize industry - roller meal as it is known, has been in very short supply in the south of the country with the shortages now manifest in the north. As commercial stocks run out, this shortage will become more and more serious and it can be expected that by mid January, the unthinkable will happen - Zimbabwe will run out of its staple food.

This has enormous implications - Zimbabwe needs a total supply of about 150 000 tonnes of maize a month. Two-thirds goes into production of roller meal and super refined meal and the balance goes as stock feed. Sight is often lost of the needs of the poultry, pig and dairy farmers who are very dependent on maize as a stock feed component. Failure to secure adequate supplies of raw maize will therefore threaten not only the basic welfare of 12 million people but also a very substantial proportion of the countries livestock industry.

Once a total stock out has occurred it is very difficult to get this essential product back into free supply throughout the country. Panic buying and hoarding as well as profiteering takes place and all of this serves to distort market forces and normal distribution channels. We have three months to go to the start of the new agricultural marketing season, but 7 months to go to the first real intake of maize from the current crop. Zimbabwe must therefore import up to 1 million tonnes of maize in the next 7 months to avoid starvation and widespread panic and disorder.

This raises a number of questions - how will this very large import programme be financed, how will such a volume be brought into the country, how will it be distributed and sold? The record of this administration in all of these respects is appalling. First they denied that there was a problem, then when they acknowledged the problem was real and appealed for help, they said that they would not allow the international donors to supply the food direct to the private sector or to affected communities. This demand froze all offers of aid before the process could even get under way. Now they have gone out to tender for 150 000 tonnes of maize, which the South Africans have been holding on to in anticipation. They then delay awarding the tender so long that it lapses and they have to start all over again - with prices having risen a third in the interim. Now they have actually done the unforgivable - they have allowed our stocks to run down to zero and we must face the possibility of real starvation on a scal

Even if sufficient maize was available in the region (and it is not) there is no way that we can get up to 5 000 tonnes into the country on a daily basis and then move it into distribution to ensure adequate supplies in all centers. The South Africans are geared to supplying maize only in bulk from silos and moved by road and rail. Zimbabwe has to move maize in both bulk and in bags and bulk maize has to therefore either be bagged off at the Ports or at South African silos and then moved by road and rail. They are not geared to handle such an exercise. This volume could be moved across the BBR to Bulawayo silos but would then have to be distributed to all parts of the country. Once maize has to be brought in by sea the problems multiply - Beira, Maputo, Port Elizabeth and East London ports would all have to be brought into play as Durban is already congested. Beira has very limited capacity and would probably only cope with the ongoing wheat import programme.

The Zimbabwe Railways are not coping at present with even coal movements to the north so how they would be able to cope with another 100 000 tonnes of bulk cargo a month is any ones guess. Even with regional traffic being at low levels, delays at the Beitbridge border are taking up to 10 days and this would render road transport completely uneconomic.

To compound these problems, price controls have seriously disrupted food markets and supply chains across the industry. Sugar, cooking oil, salt and many other products are now in short supply. These are basic necessities for every family and prices for these essential commodities in the informal sector are now as much as double those listed on price control schedules.

The outlook for this coming year is, if anything, worse than this year - the new marketing season will open with no stocks of any basic foods in the market. Farm production will be below that of the past season and in particular we are likely to see a sharp reduction in soybean output - essential for the vegetable oil market and livestock industry.

The MDC has been predicting this situation from the start of 2001 - we have consistently warned all stakeholders of this impending disaster. The solutions are to be found but will require that the government step back from its present stance on the use of food as a political campaign tool. Formally ask the international community for help and then allow the experts and the NGO's and private sector to get on with the job of feeding the people. Because of our own stupidity over the past two years, we now have no alternative if we are to avoid starvation and civil disorder.

E G Cross
Secretary for Economic Affairs, the Movement for Democratic Change.
19 December 2001.

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