HARARE, 14 March 2013 (IRIN) - Laina Tavengwa, 34, from Wedza District in Zimbabwe's Mashonaland East Province, no longer sees a point in farming her family's four-hectare plot.
When the first rains of the season fell in mid-November last year, she reluctantly heeded her husband's advice to start planting, but she put only a hectare under maize and allocated an acre to groundnuts.
The crop suffered under a dry spell in December, and when heavy rains set in, Tavengwa was unable to tend the plot or apply fertilizer - which she did not have anyway.
"When the heavy rains stopped, my maize, just like that of my neighbours, was yellowing and looked too sick, and I vowed to my husband that I would never again think of planting maize in my lifetime.
"There is no reason to be going back to the fields every year when you know that you are never going to get anything out of them," she told IRIN.
Most of the maize crop in Goto Village, where Tavengwa resides, is of uneven height, looks sickly and bears small cobs.
"There is no hope of a good harvest this year again. For the fourth year, we will have to beg for food from well-wishers. I have travelled across Wedza and it seems the majority of the people will not have much to put in their granaries," Simon Maveza, a village elder, told IRIN.
Though rains have recently returned, Maveza said it was too late for their crops, mostly maize, to recover.
Denford Chimbwanda, former president of the Grain and Cereal Producers Association of Zimbabwe (GPCA), told IRIN that although crops were doing well in regions such as Mashonaland Central and West and parts of Mashonaland East, many areas of the country would suffer poor harvests this year.
"There are pockets of good harvests in some traditionally arid regions like Masvingo, but the crop situation is bad in Matabeleland and parts of the Midlands and Manicaland. I would say about a third of the land that was planted is going to be severely affected, meaning that there will be a cereal shortage this year again," Chimbwanda told IRIN.
In February, the Zimbabwe Farmers' Union (ZFU) indicated in its crop and livestock update that most crops were showing signs of stress due to erratic rains, and that maize crops in many areas were in a critical condition.
Joseph Made, the agriculture minister, whose department is coordinating its annual crop and livestock assessment in conjunction with humanitarian agencies, revealed recently that the area planted for major food crops had declined from about 1.9 million hectares in 2012 to around 1.5 million hectares this year.
"The area planted for major food crops, namely maize, sorghum and millet has temporarily declined. due to inadequate financial support and late rains," he reportedly said during an address at a military training college.
Food security poor
Looming bad harvests will add to an already poor food security situation characterized by severe shortages.
Tavengwa said last year's harvests were the worst she had seen in a long time. Her family managed to salvage only 10kg of maize, which lasted them less than two weeks.
"I struggle every day to feed the family. My mind is always preoccupied with what I must do to ensure that we don't die of hunger," said Tavengwa, a mother of three sets of twins. Her husband has been bedridden since he had a stroke two years ago.
She frequently travels to Harare to sell dried green vegetables that she buys from vendors at the nearby Wedza business centre. The money she earns is enough to ensure that the family gets one main meal a day, but she has not paid school fees for her children since the term began in January.
According to Felix Bamezon, UN World Food Programme (WFP) country director, Zimbabwe's current food insecurity levels are the worst in three years. "During the peak hunger period of January to March 2013, approximately 19 percent of Zimbabwe's rural population - the equivalent of one in five people - are estimated to be in need of food assistance," he told IRIN.
Of the country's 13 million people, WFP and the government are providing food aid to 1.58 million in 37 districts across the country.
The Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee report of 2012 indicated that the worst-affected areas are Masvingo, Matabeleland North and South, and parts of Mashonaland, Midlands and Manicaland provinces.
Bamezon explained that WFP was mainly providing assistance to subsistence farmers and other food insecure people who were badly hit by last year's drought. "In many parts of the country, particularly in the south, the maize they harvested barely lasted a few months, bringing an early start to the 'hunger season', which will end with the next harvest expected in April," he told IRIN.
Under the programme, in which the government for the first time provided 35,000 metric tons of maize from the strategic grain reserve, beneficiaries are receiving maize meal, cooking oil and pulses. “In selected areas, 250,000 people are receiving cash to buy food.”