Another Crisis Year

Source: Another Crisis Year

What a year 2024 is turning out to be. We started this crop season early in October 2023 when it started raining and we had heavy widespread rains for 10 days or so. Many farmers planted and then watched their early planted crops die in a very dry November.

Eddie Cross

Then in mid-December, the rains resumed and this time we had widespread flooding. The Sanyati River which hardly flowed in 2022/23 reached record levels and the debris flooded Kariba Dam which rose strongly.

Then just as suddenly the rains stopped and we had virtually no rain at all in February – usually a reliable wet month. Now here we are in March with little rain in the forecast and temperatures dropping after an exceptionally hot February. Unlike 2022/23 when we had a near perfect season , this year has been a disaster for anyone who relies on the weather for their living.

That short wet period in December and January has given us grass cover and the trees have loved it. But farmers are in dire straights and the dryland crop is pretty much a write off, the irrigated crop is also well below potential because of the unusual heat in late January through to March when they struggled to get enough water onto the land. Winter water is being used to try and get something out of planted crops. This has not been helped by the failure to pay in full for the near record wheat crop last winter.

So where does this leave us facing a long dry winter? The Ministry of Agriculture maintained that we would have adequate grain available until last week when the private sector pushed the panic button. I doubt if we will reap more than 600 000 tonnes of all grains this summer and we have virtually no stocks to speak of. Potato growers say they are OK and will be able to meet demand, but we are going to have to import most of the grains we need together with vegetable oils.

Fortunately, the Government agreed three years ago to allow the private sector to import its needs without recourse to the State and they have already started importing maize grain from the only country with a surplus in the region – South Africa. We will also have to start importing wheat grain as I doubt if this winter we will produce even half what we did last year. In the case of oilseeds, we are going to have import most of what we need including soybeans and bulk oil.

So, food availability will not be a problem as the private sector will import what needs to be secured, on time and at world market prices. The private sector will also process these raw materials and distribute the finished products to the whole country through established wholesale and retail chains. The problem is going to the ability of people to buy what they need.

Our farm economy is still in a very poor state, The land reform program has been a near total failure with most commercial farmland no longer productive. Certainly, less capable of dealing with the present crisis. The communally settled areas of the country are still very backward in farming terms and rely almost totally on rainfall and aid to produce what they need for basic subsistence.

The destruction of farm land values by the reform program has not allowed new farmers to borrow against it as collateral and this has meant that the State has had to support the farmers and this support has been inadequate and untimely. The loss of incentive and the inability of the banking system to support all forms of economic activity after they were wiped out by successive bouts of hyperinflation, has only made matters worse.

The State has announced that they will make 72000 tonnes of food available free of charge to some 3 million people who are food insecure. Sounds good but it’s a drop in the ocean. They have further provided Z$44 billion to fund this program – that is barely US$1 per person. Not going to go very far. We need to think out the box. What we need right now is the following: –

  • Declare a food emergency so that the Non-Governmental organisations and international organisations can see what they can do in terms of basic food supplies.
  • Clear the way for the private sector to import its needs.
  • Get the private sector to make up food parcels for the Diaspora to fund for delivery or collection by the families involved.
  • Appeal to the Diaspora to keep an eye on their families and send money to enable them to buy food.

I do not support State funded and organised free food handouts as these disrupt the rural economy and undermine the market. It also invites corruption in the supply and distribution of the products involved. Our experience of these has been very poor in the past. We must also understand that the days of massive aid to support food supplies are gone.

So where does that leave us? Our system of Villages in the rural areas is well organised and is capable of directing assistance to those who need it and I think that we can organise to get basic food grants to individual families anywhere in the country, if they are identified as needing help. Such assistance has to be in cash and if this is done it will strengthen the rural economy and ensure targeted assistance.

Then there is water. Unless we get a late bout of heavy rain, our towns and cities are going to be short of water. Also, our main electricity power station at Kariba Dam is not going to be able to operate at more than a low level due to poor inflow from the north. Zambia has already declared an emergency as they generate 90 per cent of their power from hydroelectric plants on the Kafue and the Zambezi.

Bulawayo, our second City is in a critical position. They have 6 dams for supply, 2 are dry and another 2 will shortly be decommissioned. The remaining 2 are at 50 per cent but cannot supply sufficient water to meet the needs of the City. The aquifers to the north are inoperable and the new dam on the Gwaai/Shangani rivers is still years away from completion. They have some short-term solutions, but the long-term problem still need to be addressed. They need help and this is just as urgent as the food situation. It would help if the Government formally declared a water emergency in Bulawayo.

Then there are our continuing problems in our monetary system. Our local dollar has died and is no longer regarded as a suitable means of exchange. We are nearly fully dollarised with serious implications for the formal sector. Tax receipts are down and if we do not get to grips with this very soon we are in for real problems in the wider economy.

As I have said time and time again, the only answer is to liberalise our markets, scrap exchange control, discontinue all systems of price control and float the local dollar in the interbank market. Trust the market to deal with the relationships involved but do not let our local currency, whatever that is, become too strong so it undermines our export activity. It would help if we took steps, real steps to control corruption at all levels in our economy. Such leakages are reducing our capacity to meet the needs of our people and inhibiting growth.

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