Why Zimbabwe is facing a food crisis


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Simple aggregate analyses of food deficits, estimating the numbers of people at risk of food insecurity, do not capture these new dynamics. National surveys are important, but may be misleading, and local studies, such as ours, often do not match the national, aggregate picture.

Food insecurity is not just about production, it is also about access. This is affected by the value of assets when sold, the ease with which things can be bought and sold in markets, the value of cash as influenced by currency fluctuations and inflation, local and cross-border trade opportunities, and all the social, institutional and cultural dimensions that go into exchange.

When these dimensions change, so does food security. And this is particularly true for certain groups.

Take the case of Zvishavane district, in Midlands province of Zimbabwe. In the communal area of Mazvihwa, there was effectively no production this season. Some got a little if they had access to wetlands, and a few had stores. But compared to 30 years ago, production is focused on maize, which stores poorly, rather than small grains that can be kept for years.

How are people surviving? Some seek piecework in the nearby resettlement areas; others have taken up seasonal gold panning; others migrate to town, or further afield; others get help from relatives through remittances; while others are in receipt of cash transfers or food hand-outs from NGOs.

With small amounts of cash, people must buy food. It’s available in shops, but expensive. So a vibrant trade has emerged, with exchanges of maize grain for sugar or other products. And it’s especially people from the land reform areas who are selling their surpluses. Many have relatives who got land, and some travel there to get food, but there is also a network of women traders who come and sell in the communal areas.

Aggregate surveys almost always miss this complexity. There are sampling biases, as the importance of the resettlements as sites of production and exchange are missed.

There are data problems too, as it is difficult to pick up informal exchanges, and income-earning activities on the margins. The result is that each year there are big food insecurity figures proclaimed, fund-raising campaigns launched, but meanwhile people get on with surviving.

This is not to say that there is not a problem this year. Far from it. But it may be a different one to that diagnosed.

Continued next page

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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