Moses Matenga/

THE United Nations (UN) has raised a red flag over looming food shortages in Zimbabwe highlighting that so far there is little evidence that enough maize is coming to feed the drought-stricken nation’s 7,7 million people, but government insists that it is prepared to deal with the deepening food crisis.

Agriculture minister Perrance Shiri last week told NewsDay that there is less than a month’s supply, or 100 000 tonnes, of the staple maize grain in the southern African nation. That compares with a supply gap that’s expected to be around one million tonnes. Shiri yesterday refused to comment over the phone on government’s state of preparedness. While the government said it has started importing food, UN officials say there’s no sign of it yet.

“The situation has not changed a bit,” Eddie Rowe, the UN World Food Programme (WFP)’s country director in Zimbabwe, said last week. “We do not see anything coming in.”

The nation’s maize crop is expected to plunge by half this season due to a drought that in some areas is the worst in 40 years. At the same time, an economic collapse has seen food shortages spread from the rural areas to the urban areas for the first time.

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While Zimbabwe is facing a severe deficit of foreign exchange that is hindering its ability to ensure adequate supplies of power, fuel and food, Finance minister Mthuli Ncube claimed in Davos last week that the government was making the necessary arrangements for enough grain imports.

“Contracts have been signed, and we are already importing food,” Ncube said in an interview with Bloomberg TV in Davos, Switzerland. “It’s already arriving.”

Ncube said maize was being imported from an “Atlantic” market, where Mexico is the only major producer of the white variety favored by consumers in southern Africa. Grain is being shipped through the Mozambican port of Beira, by road from Tanzania and through South Africa, he claimed.

“The country is not at risk of famine,” Ncube said. “We are well organised. We are ready and we also appreciate the international community’s support. So we understand what’s going on.”
In times of need, Zimbabwe has traditionally bought South African maize or used agents from that country to bring in grain.

Statistics from the South African Grain Information Service show that from April 27 until January 17, no maize was imported via local ports for export to other nations. South Africa did , however, ship about 60 000 tonnes of its locally produced maize to Zimbabwe.

“It has to come through South Africa,” said Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa. “Traders who facilitate this sort of trade are Johannesburg-based. They use ports on the South African side.”

While Zimbabwe bought 100 000 tonnes of maize and received the delivery from Tanzania last year, it has not been in contact with the country since, said Japhet Hasunga, Tanzania’s Agriculture minister. In any event, Tanzania is limiting exports to build its own reserves, he said.

Cornelder de Mocambique SA, which operates the port in Beira, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Zimbabwe’s Finance ministry didn’t respond to a request for more details on shipments.

Rowe said the WFP had imported 20 000 tonnes of grain from South Africa and expects a further 50 000 tonnes from Ukraine and Mexico to arrive by the end of next month. The government has not been involved in those shipments, he said.

On its official Twitter page, WFP in Zimbabwe gave updates of the situation on the ground in most parts of the country, an account that saw many raising concern on the state of preparedness by the Zanu PF government.

“The fields are bare, livestock is dying and hope is running low. In Mwenezi, communities are facing the effects of cumulative drought and an economic crisis. WFP is doubling its efforts to reach 4,1 million people who do not know where their next meal is coming from,” the WFP wrote on Twitter.

The UN agency regional director for Southern Africa, Lola Castro said the situation was “on a scale we have not seen before and the evidence shows it is going to get worse”.

Over $200 million is needed to assist those in the country. WFP also said children in most parts of the country were now getting one meal a day while drought and the economic meltdown has left more than 7,7 million facing hunger across the country.

MDC secretary for agriculture Rusty Markham yesterday said government has shown lack of preparedness while misleading the international community on the matter.

“The issue of food security is very simple, government has always waited till late. The minister weeks ago stated they had 100 000 tonnes of maize at the Grain Marketing Board. That is less than one month’s supply of maize. The issue is that it will take us to the middle of next month,” he said.

He said the supplies from Tanzania, Mexico and Maputo will only last until next month and questioned government commitment to avert a potential disaster.

“They have done nothing. You heard (Finance minister Mthuli) Ncube in Davos saying we signed contracts, maize is rolling and we are on top of the situation and no one will starve? The WFP issued a release where they said they were not aware of any programmes to import maize into Zimbabwe. If they don’t know about it I don’t think there is anyone in the international community who knows about it,” he said expressing concern that after the ban on maize exports by Zambia and Malawi, Zimbabwe’s options were now very limited.

“When you have a national emergency or disaster you declare it as one. You have to say we have a major disaster here and we need food. What they have done is talk to donors, but what they should do is declare and people will help and raise funds for it. They come up with a silly idea of roller meal committees. It is as good as those things they parade as bakeries that were used by our great grandfathers. We have this major disaster we are faced with and you form these roller meal committees.

“In agriculture we have a regime that is in a state of paralysis and they do not know what to do,” he said.