Margaret Mutasa, a smallholder farmer, stares at her children picking yellow-green guavas from the fields in Watsomba, a rural area in Zimbabwe’s Manicaland Province.

These fruits are what Mutasa’s family eat for breakfast – the only meal they can afford each day.

‘Our harvest will not last a month,’ the 52-year-old  mother of seven tells the New Internationalist from her home in Wastomba, 282 kilometres from the capital, Harare.

‘It is only a matter of time until these fruits run out.’

In April, President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared a national disaster to tackle the prolonged drought in Zimbabwe. Mnangagwa said the country needs more than $2 billion in aid to feed more than 2.7 million people, roughly 20 per cent of the population.

The severe dry spell is wreaking havoc across southern Africa, with Zambia and Malawi declaring it a national emergency in March. About 80 per cent of Zimbabwe is experiencing drought caused by El Nino, a weather phenomenon which brought high temperatures and below-average rainfall to the region from November last year to April.


The resultant drought, the worst in four decades, has meant that maize harvests are projected to be down 72 per cent, with only two out of 60 districts growing enough food to last a year. Like many smallholder farmers, Mutasa’s maize crop has withered.

‘During a normal season, I harvest over a tonne of maize,’ she says. ‘This year I will be lucky if I get 50 kilograms.’

Delilah Takiwara, a technical advisor and nutritionist for the development organization FHI 360 says the reduction in harvest and yields has created a dire situation.

‘We fear a food crisis across the country. Women and children are the most vulnerable, but millions are at risk of moderate and severe acute malnutrition.’

Aerial shot of drought-affected maize crops

An aerial view of withered crops in the fields of Margaret Mutasa, a smallholder farmer in Wastomba, eastern Zimbabwe. FARAI SHAWN MATIASHE


In Zimbabwe, approximately 70 per cent of the population relies on subsistence rainfed agriculture for their livelihoods and food security, according to United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

David Murenje, another smallholder farmer in Watsomba, now wonders how he will pay his children’s school fees. He expects the harvest from his three hectares of land will not last the family of seven for the next two months.

‘I sell some of what I harvest to the local market. This time if I sell, we will starve,’ he says.

‘I sell some of what I harvest to the local market. This time if I sell, we will starve.’

‘My other source of income is my small garden but the rivers have dried up. Drinking water is even a challenge. We are drinking unsafe water,’ says Mutasa.

The water shortage has also impacted electricity production in Zimbabwe and Zambia which both rely on hydropower generated by Lake Kariba. Low water levels in the lake have forced Zimbabwe to roll out load shedding schedules lasting more than 12 hours per day because power generated from the Kariba Hydropower Plant is down by nearly half.

Leaders have declared a state of emergency in both Malawi and Zambia to help mobilize resources. Zambia which needs around $900 million is already in talks with the International Monetary Fund to unlock funding. According to the Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit, the Zambian government has so far raised $51 million – far short of what is needed.

In Malawi, the World Food Programme is appealing for resources to feed the affected population. Last week, the UN launched a $429 million aid appeal for Zimbabwe, declaring that 3.1 million of the total population of 7.6 million requite urgent help as a result of the drought.

Talla, the FAO representative in Zimbabwe, says these are signs of the seriousness of the evolving climate crisis in the region.

David Murenje, a smallholder farmer, holding some of this season's harverst in Wastomba, eastern Zimbabwe. FARAI SHAWN MATIASHE

David Murenje, a smallholder farmer, holding some of this season’s harverst in Wastomba, eastern Zimbabwe. FARAI SHAWN MATIASHE

‘This is one of the most severe droughts that countries in southern Africa including Zimbabwe has ever experienced,’ he says, adding that more countries are expected to make similar declarations ahead of the looming dry season.

Talla says more countries are expected to make similar declarations ahead of the looming dry season.


This is not the first time that Zimbabwe has experienced climate shocks. In March 2019, Cyclone Idai created a humanitarian crisis and destroyed crops and property worth millions of dollars.

The recurring drought caused by El Nino shows the need to move away from the unpredictability of rain-fed agriculture in favour of climate proof farming including irrigation and drought resistant crops.

Talla suggests that ‘Climate Smart Agriculture’ techniques such as water harvesting, irrigation and the use of water conservation practices can stabilize food production, even in drought conditions. Renewable energy technologies such as solar pumps can also increase the hectarage smallholder farmers can irrigate in winter to produce more food and to fill the food shortage after a faulty harvest.

But for many smallholder farmers, these climate solutions are expensive and remain out of reach. Efforts to expand these programs are underway, and the United Nations Development Programme has implemented over 18 solar irrigation schemes for 1,500 people.

Mutasa, unfortunately, is not one of them.

‘Those with irrigation schemes in this village have a bumper harvest. If I had one my story would have been different,’ she says. ‘We last received food hampers from the government in January. We do not know when they are coming back. We are just waiting.’