Zimbabwe: Food imports will drain govt coffers, say analysts

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

JOHANNESBURG, 26 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - Zimbabwe has turned to Zambia, Uganda and Tanzania for grain imports as the state Grain Marketing Board (GMB) attempts to restock the country's dwindling maize and wheat stocks.

Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Nicholas Goche confirmed to IRIN that Zimbabwe had expanded its grain sources to include these three countries, in addition to South Africa, the major supplier.

"We have been looking for more and more sources of grain. There are contracts that have been in existence but not in force - we are reactivating those, and signing up new ones, to ensure that food keeps coming. We received about 150,000 mt from South Africa over the past month and we are expecting more deliveries from East Africa," Goche told IRIN.

Goche, formerly the state security minister, assumed his new portfolio following a cabinet reshuffle last week.

The government's admission came as economists said the country needed to import at least 1.2 million mt of maize, 200,000 mt of wheat, and unspecified tonnages of barley and sorghum to meet the country's immediate food requirements.

Minister Goche said the country was expecting to feed about 1.5 million people in seven mostly rural provinces, but could not say whether there was a parallel relief programme for urban areas. Although there were no responses from the embassies of the three source countries, an official at the GMB procurement division told IRIN that the Zimbabwe-Uganda maize import deal was signed during President Yoweri Museveni's recent visit to Zimbabwe.

Didymus Mutasa, Zimbabwe's newly appointed minister of state security, said he could not divulge any details beyond what Goche had said, as food was a national security issue. His ministry, which is responsible for the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), has taken charge of the importation and distribution of food.

"Why do you want to know where we get our food? I cannot tell you anything more than what you already know because these are security issues. Besides, I am new in this ministry, so I do not know much," Mutasa said.

A spokesman for the ruling ZANU-PF party, Nathan Shamuyarira, said the country needed at least Zim $5 trillion (about US $818 million) for the immediate importation of grains and cereals, and the government would divert money from infrastructure development programmes to import food.

"We have been forced to divert resources from other projects to deal with the immediate hunger situation. We are in a predicament. Food importation is our priority at the moment," Shamuyarira told IRIN.

Economists Erich Bloch and John Robertson warned that the high cost of importing food would drive up inflation and lead to a thriving alternative market for scarce foodstuffs and foreign currency.

"The expanded government and [the proposed new] Senate will both be a huge drain on the national fiscus, which does not have foreign currency at present. It means spending on the bureaucracy would compete with food importation for resources, but government simply does not have such money - food importation alone will cost the country tremendous sums of foreign currency between now and April next year when the next harvest comes," said Bloch. "The result will be a resilient black market for scarce foodstuffs in both rural and urban areas; there will also be a more stubborn foreign currency black market to fill up where government is failing. The cost will be too high for our ailing economy."

He added that there was no hope that the country's winter wheat-growing season, due to begin in late April, would improve the food security situation until the next harvest.

Robertson said the diversion of foreign currency into importing food would stall other capital projects, costing the country heavily in terms of development; the government needed to design long-term policies to counter the overall economic meltdown, to solve the problem of food insecurity.

"Steps must be taken to deal with the shortage of foreign currency. The causes of food insecurity can be traced back to the collapse of the farming sector - the collapse of the tobacco, cotton, timber and beef export industries. All attempts at ensuring food security without addressing these problems will fail," noted Robertson.

The GMB noted in a recent report to the National Taskforce on Food Security that rather than government's harvest estimate of 2.4 million mt, only 600,000 mt of grain had been surrendered to its silos after the 2004 harvest. The country needs 1.8 million mt of grain annually to meet domestic consumption needs.

Contrary to government estimates that 1.5 million people would need some kind of food assistance, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) last month warned that up to 4.5 million were in need of immediate food aid.


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