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El Niño leaves farmers devastated



IT is midday in rural Murewa’s Marembo Village, and the blistering sun is relentlessly scorching the stunted maize crop, now reduced to a wilted wasteland.


 The plants, barely above ankle height, have been drying in the heatwave, changing from a lush green colour to brown. Less than 100 metres away from the farms is a stream, whose levels have been dwindling since the start of the rainy season, with huge boulders, once submerged under water, now laid bare, due to lack of rain.

 “Our crops should have tusselled by now, but unfortunately the heat has been intense, and there has been very little rain,” a farmer tells The NewsHawks.

 “We mainly rely on the rains and, if they do not come, it will be difficult to find a way out. Grain becomes expensive. For instance, right now it is costing over US$7 for a bucket, which will continue to increase as time goes.”

 Other than Marembo Village, smallholder farmers elsewhere are grappling with the blighting effects of the El Niño conditions.

In Mutoko, farmers under the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers’ Forum (Zimsoff) say farming is now a write-off as their crops have been heavily ravaged by the blistering heat and limited rainfall. Maize prices are gradually increasing, with a 20-litre bucket of maize now costing US$10, up from US$3, and beyond the reach of many.

“Mutoko district geographical area falls in regions four and five, and naturally has little rain[1]fall of about 400mm-600mm or less. The area has been hard hit by the El Niño phenomenon that has affected the southern Africa hemisphere that has seen Zambia declaring an emergency,” said Ngoni Chikowe, an agricultural technical officer at Zimsoff in Mutoko.

 “Cropping in Mutoko is a complete write-of as crops have dried to a point that if we would light a fire, they would go up in flames, rivers are dry that livestock finds it difficult to survive this year whereby we are encouraging farmers to sell some of their herd while they are still fetching good money to buy grain till the next harvest next year. Of late, we received little rains that have just cooled temperatures, but inadequate for agriculture. Food prices are going rise beyond ordinary farmers’ reach.”

“The government has started registering people for social welfare, targeting the aged and those with disabilities. However, even the able-bodied are facing the same predicament. Dealers have started hoarding mealie meal. We hope civil society will intervene to complement government efforts, but the problem is our government has not yet declared a state of national disaster.”

Chikowe said while traditional grains have been resilient to the harsh climatic conditions, they have failed to yield meaningful harvest. To counter effects of climate change in the face of the El Niño-induced drought, Women in Agriculture Union (WAU) has been helping women access irrigation facilities across the country.

“In the face of the drought that is going on, we are urging our women, especially those we had assisted to get irrigation. They are joining the government initiated wheat program, the one that is going to be done by Agriculture and Rural Development Agency (Arda). We are also encouraging some of our farmers that have been having access to green mealies in this drought,” said Olga Nhari, WAU director.

Nhari said while women have gained access to irrigation, grain reserves are still insufficient to sustain the national economy.

“We are hoping that the initiatives by the ministries to promote the winter wheat crop is going to assist in terms of stockfeed, and we may have to import maize to assist on mealie-meal and stockfeed. Most of our farmers have already run dry on grains they had in their storage,” she said.

Agriculture minister Anxious Masuka says the country is food secure, amid growing calls for the government to declare the 2024 farming season a state of national disaster. African countries are reeling under the El Niño-induced drought, with Zambia having banned maize exports to ensure available stocks are reserved for its people.

“The nation is informed that a total of 3 027 559 hectares was planted to crops during the 2023/2024 summer season, out of the targeted 3 674 000 hectares. Of the total planted area, 1 676 274 hectares was planted to maize, 362 541 hectares to sorghum, 141 169 hectares to pearl millet, and 271 823 hectares to groundnuts,” said Masuka in a post-cabinet briefing in February.

“A cumulative 2 283 272 metric tonnes of maize and 271 623 metric tonnes of traditional grains is expected from the planted area.

“Zimbabwe consumes 2.2 million metric tonnes of maize/traditional grains (1.8 metric tonnes for food and 400 000 for stockfeed). This translates to 6 027 metric tonnes daily, with 4 931 metric tonnes going towards human consumption. The monthly human consumption requirement is 150 000 metric tonnes.”

 On the other hand, the United Nations says at least 2.6 million, including 1.7 million children, are projected to require urgent humanitarian assistance in Zimbabwe.

A further 1.7 million people are also projected to need life-saving health, HIV and nutrition services, while at least 860 757 people, including 473 416 children, will require safe water for drinking and domestic purposes.

 2.7 million people are projected to be food insecure during the peak hunger period, with a quarter of children stunted. Wasting significantly increased during the lean season of 2022–23, from 4.5% in 2020 to 7.2% in 2022, the highest prevalence in the last 15 years.

Currently, stunting prevalence is 26%, while wasting prevalence is 4%. Economist Dr Prosper Chitambara said the effects of El Niño are likely to be worsened by loss of value by Zimbabwe’s local currency.

 The Zimbabwe dollar, one of the weakest currencies in the world currently on a tailspin, dramatically lost 95% of its value since the beginning of December last year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) says.

“As long as we are in a dual currency frame[1]work, and the fact that most people have lost confidence, I think that is going to put a lot of pressure, even in 2024 on the exchange rate. In light of the El Niño conditions, a diminished agricultural production, is likely to affect pricing, government spending and imports,” Chitambara said.

“So all that will have a destabilising effect. And, that will also weaken the local currency. So, in 2024 we expect the trend in terms of the local currency to continue on account of the expected challenges with respect to the El Niño.

 “Government will have to import and even electricity generation will be affected due to limited water. It will mean that businesses will be under pressure to continue with the use of generators, which will again affect the cost of production, cost of doing business and that will also affect inflation which will have a depreciating effect on the local currency.”

 The country also has one of the highest food inflation statistics, with the cost of food having increased 84.4% in February of 2024 over the same month in the previous year, according to Trading Economics.

Food Inflation in Zimbabwe averaged 1540753.44% from 2003 until 2024, reaching an all-time high of 353131459.30% in July of 2008 and a record low of -15.10% in December of 2009.

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