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The bad news of a relatively good maize harvest

Maize field in village near Bafata, 80km east of Bissau.
(Anna Jefferys/IRIN)

A more than two fold increase in Zimbabwe's production of its staple, maize, in 2009 will not be enough to rid the country of food insecurity.

A crop report by the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP), released on 25 June, said: "National production of maize in 2009 is estimated at 1.14 million tons, an increase of 130 percent on that of the record low harvest of 2008 [471,000 tons]. Total domestic cereal availability for 2009/10 is estimated to be 1.39 million tons."

WFP spokesperson Peter Smerdon told IRIN the maize harvest "looks very good, but last year was very bad". National food requirement is around 1.7 million tons.

The increase in maize production is tempered by the forecast for a winter wheat crop of just 12,000 tons, "the lowest ever and dramatically down from 242,000 tons in 2006," a consequence of high input costs, "financial liquidity" problems and intermittent electricity supplies to power irrigation equipment.

Initial forecasts were that about 2.8 million people would require food assistance by March 2010, a substantial decrease from the 7 million beneficiaries during the March 2009 "lean season" - the month prior to the main harvest in April.

Smerdon said 600,000 people were already receiving food assistance as part of WFP's safety net programme and estimates of those requiring food relief could be revised after vulnerability assessment in August determines the level of assistance required.

The June 2008 FAO/WFP crop assessment initially forecast that 5.1 million people would require food aid in the first quarter of 2009, but this number increased to 7 million. A shortfall in donor funding resulted in WFP reducing cereal rations to 5kg per person - less than half the recommended monthly minimum of 12kg.

WFP's Jan Delbaere, a co-leader of the crop assessment mission, said in a statement: "This year's improved harvest comes after two consecutive years of poor production, having depleted their food stocks and sold livestock and other assets to cope with the effects of recent crises, many rural households are still struggling to survive."

Declining population

The crop assessment report attributed a better maize harvest to "well-distributed rainfall ... in spite of the fact that inputs such as improved seeds, fertilizer, fuel and draught power were in short supply and expensive."

"With the total utilization of cereals at about 2.07 million tons including 1.74 million tons for direct human consumption for the revised projected population of 11 million, the resulting cereal import requirement is estimated at 680,000 tons, of which the maize deficit accounts for about 70 percent," the report said.

Zimbabwe's population decline from more than 12 million to 11 million was cited as being caused by HIV/AIDS deaths and a "significant amount of out-migration" caused by the collapse of the country's economy.

The Central Statistics Office "accepts a low figure of 350,000 as out-migrants since 2002. On the other hand the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) has been using three million as a planning figure for the purpose of remittance calculations."

More maize from less land

The increased maize production was achieved despite a reduced area under cultivation from 1.7 million hectares in 2008 to 1.4 million in 2009 and "had rainfall this year been similar to that of 2007/08 production might have been disastrously low."

''Seed and fertilizer worth US$ 31 million were donated by SADC [Southern African Development Community] but in most areas they were delivered too late for effective use''

A limited availability of agricultural inputs, high costs, late deliveries and the unsuitability of certain seeds combined to constrain maize production.

"Seed and fertilizer worth US$ 31 million were donated by SADC [Southern African Development Community] but in most areas they were delivered too late for effective use ... [and] was not always the most suitable for the agro-ecological zones where it was distributed," the report said.

A lack of animal draught power was also being compounded by food insecurity as livestock was slaughtered in the wake of the poor 2007/2008 harvest.

"In late 2008 many smallholders sold off their livestock, including cattle, in order to raise money for food, transport, school fees and other expenses following the poor main harvest. Undoubtedly some of these cattle were sold to larger farmers wishing to increase their herd size," the report said.

Among its recommendations was emergency assistance by both government and the international community for the delivery of quality seed by September 2009 - a few months ahead of the planting season. The two UN agencies also called for the provision of credit lines and contractual guarantees for the purchase of inputs, the revival of agricultural extension officers and the rehabilitation of small-scale irrigation schemes.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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