Wheat crisis as prices rocket

A bread and butter issue [Wheat crisis]

NewsDay editorial

17 September 2018

EMPTY national coffers, poor rains and harvests, disease outbreaks, skyrocketing bread prices and a restless populace. Zimbabwe? The French Revolution in the 18th century actually.

But yes, the same applies to the impoverished southern African nation. Zimbabwe is by all accounts broke. Without foreign aid or significant inflows of Foreign Direct Investment, the country mainly relies on taxes to fund its budget and the rather lavish lifestyles of its bloated government.

According to the World Food Programme, more than 1,1 million people presently face food insecurity. That number could be as high as 2,5 million as the lean season progresses.

There are many other factors at play too, such as the cholera outbreak which has so far killed 28 people and infected over 5 000 – the biggest outbreak since 2008 when the waterborne disease killed 4 500 while 45 000 were treated. There is widespread poverty, high prevalence of HIV and Aids, low employment opportunities, the ongoing cash crunch and a poor economy means there is limited access to food.

All of which means that the price of bread will go up to $1,10, as bakers struggle to secure flour amid rising operational costs and shortage of foreign currency to buy essential raw materials and equipment is not welcome news.

But the writing has been on the wall for some time. Zimbabwe, a former regional breadbasket, has become a serial grain importer since the government’s seizure of white-owned farms in 2000.

Wheat output, which peaked at 325 000 tonnes in 1990 and 2001, now averages 20 000 tonnes — the equivalent of two weeks supply. Zimbabwe’s annual wheat requirements stand at 400 000 tonnes.

Taking away the chaotic land reform, wheat production is expensive in Zimbabwe compared to regional peers due to a variety of factors, including high electricity and water tariffs as well as other costs such as fertilisers and seed, priced in a strong US dollar currency which the country adopted in 2009 to tame hyperinflation.

The radical land reform’s biggest challenge is that with new ownership patterns, the agricultural sector has a much more diverse base. Today, there are many small to medium-sized farms, rather than a few major players.

All of which means that it’s time the government made good its long parrotted plans to increase irrigable land in the face of climate-change-induced shocks and weather patterns.

Irrigation is essential to boost production in dryland areas. We are not advocating for the expensive, large-scale schemes, but rather support for the farmer-led irrigation, using small pumps and pipes, all of which are available locally. The government receives a lot of external aid to support irrigation, but this should be focused on improving water use efficiency and management.

It means farmers will have greater control of the resources to manage according to their needs and allow government to direct specific targets for wheat growing.

Government must take the small-scale farmers seriously and empower them. It’s a bread and butter issue.