Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe: Food import bill beyond govt's pocket

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JOHANNESBURG, 15 July (IRIN) - Experts in Zimbabwe have cast serious doubts on claims by the government that it is able to secure 1.2 million mt of maize to feed millions of food insecure households.

The authorities have been reluctant to launch an official appeal for international aid to stave off widespread food shortages, saying the government was capable of importing adequate stocks to address the shortfall.

Relief agencies have estimated that up to 4.5 million Zimbabweans will need food aid this year, but officials maintain that just 1.5 million people require food assistance, based on a government crop assessment undertaken between December and January.

Recent figures showed that drought conditions had reduced the maize harvest to around 600,000 mt, against a national consumption requirement of 1.8 million mt. The national grain procurer, the Grain Marketing Board (GMB), also plans to import 600,000 mt to build its strategic reserves.

But a senior European Union food security analyst in Harare expressed serious concerns, saying the figures did not add up and the government, already strapped for hard currency, was unlikely to follow through on its promises.

"The government says it has plans to procure maize for food use, but so far it has not backed up where they would source the funds from to pay for these imports. The 1.2 million mt will definitely be adequate to meet not only the needs of the vulnerable but many more people in Zimbabwe, but so far there hasn't been any major import of maize, and we are all wondering how true the information is," EU food security programme coordinator, Pierre-Luc Vanhaeverbeke, told IRIN.

Sources noted that just a fraction of the necessary maize - around 260,000 mt - had been delivered. Surplus stocks from South Africa are expected to be the main source of imports.

Recurring fuel shortages also threatened to complicate food distribution. "The task to get so much food across the country is not an easy one - and extremely expensive - so one would hope that the government has a comprehensive plan in place that takes all of these factors into consideration," Vanhaeverbeke said.

Apart from needing forex to import food, the county has to find enough money to bring in fuel, electricity, medical supplies and other essentials.

Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Minister Nicholas Goche told IRIN: "All I can say is that we are importing large quantities of grain, particularly from South Africa. I cannot give you the exact budget for importing and distributing the grain around the country, but the GMB already has a system which we shall make use of."

Goche said the fuel crisis would not hamper the distribution of maize but referred IRIN to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) and the chief executive officer of the GMB, Samuel Muvhuti, for details on expenditure and the proposed safeguards for ensuring that the food reached the needy.

Muvhuti could not be reached for comment.

Zimbabwe's foreign currency shortage has been tightening steadily since 1999, with a deficit of over US $600 million reached in 2004, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. Since the beginning of 2005, the demand at monthly foreign currency auctions has grown to about US $215 million, far outstripping the US $11 million usually made available by the RBZ.

The French embassy in Harare has announced that it will assist Zimbabwe with Euro 1 million towards emergency food aid, channelled through the UN World Food Programme.

WFP currently feeds about 1.1 million people in Zimbabwe, providing nutritional support to people with HIV/AIDS and malnourished children and orphans.

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