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Zimbabwe Food Security Threatened by Tobacco

Small farmers water their fields using pumps provided by an international aid agency in Mutoko, Zimbabwe. (Photo: David Snyder, Dreamstime.com)

When Mirosi Chingawo, a small farmer in the Madziwa area of Mashonaland Central, switched from farming food crops to tobacco in 2010, few people thought about the implications at the time. Now Chingawo is among the growing number of farmers in Zimbabwe growing tobacco and moving away from food staples such as maize, sorghum and millet. This threatens the country's food security.

"After all the labor, I am able to make ends meet," Says Chingawo. Since switching to tobacco, his annual income has mushroomed from about $800 for one harvest of maize a year to $4,500 for a single tobacco crop. "The work is tedious, but I can feed my family and pay school fees for my children," says the father of five.

A survey in the Madziwa area of Zimbabwe showed that many small farmers have built better houses and bought household goods, but they find themselves unable to stock their larders with enough food to last the season. "The food takes us almost halfway through the season. But it is better off because we can manage to do other things with money we get from the tobacco crop," says Nyarai Mafunga, a farmer in the same area.

A number of farmers in the cotton- and maize-growing areas of Zimbabwe are annually leaving their cotton and maize fields, relocating to tobacco-growing ones. The wide producer price offered by the government has been pointed to as the chief cause of the disparity in prices. "Maize and Cotton prices have not been good for us, and this is pushing us to grow tobacco," says Amos Ngwerume, who has set his eyes on tobacco farming.

Issues surrounding the chaotic land reform program of 2000 still dodge the country. Huge tracts of land taken during the fast track land reform still lie idle a decade after being seized from white owners. Many of the small-scale farmers resettled on the land with vandalized irrigation pumps and farm equipment, and it has proven difficult to refinance agriculture given the economic downturn the country has been under since 2000.

Climatic change has not spared the country. Farmers have been caught in a web of changing seasons. Droughts occur frequently. According to a recent document on Drought Management Strategy by the Southern African Development Community, meaningful contingent planning for drought is unfamiliar to the region, which results in droughts being treated as emergencies rather than developmental challenges. "Such an attitude should change, given that projections show that the region is likely to become more prone to conditions of low rainfall in the future and that such episodes are likely to become more intense.

Before 2000, 1,500 of the estimated 4,500 commercial farmers produced 97 percent of the tobacco delivered to sales floors. Other commercial farmers shunned maize production because of price controls, which remain in force. They opted for cash crops such as paprika, cut flowers and cotton, while growing yellow maize for stock feed.

Fungai Mungate, chairman of the Stock Feed Manufacturers Association in Zimbabwe, says, "The main reason the country is food insecure is because producers' prices have not been favorable to farmers." There is a major shortage of maize on the market. For the past few years now, the industry has depended on local maize supplies and imports from Zambia. "But due to problems in Zambia, between November and December 2012, that country imposed some kind of restriction or an unofficial ban on maize exports to Zimbabwe," added Mungate.

The price of maize was around $260 a ton in 2012, but has escalated to $380 per ton, says Mungate. The "golden leaf"—as tobacco is popularly known—has become the most commonly grown cash crop, with an estimated 47,000 small-scale tobacco farmers growing it, most of whom came into the industry in the past two years.

Growing tobacco requires intensive labor and close care for long periods, leaving farmers with no time to grow traditional food crops like maize, beans, sorghum and sweet potatoes. Most farmers take a break from tobacco in July, leaving little time to start cultivating food crops in time for the November rains.

In Zimbabwe, one season of maize production is not enough to feed the population of 13 million. The country needs two harvests in most areas to meet its food needs. Despite tobacco money coming in, cases of malnutrition in children in rural areas is said to be on the rise. A recent report by the World Food Programme (WPP) says 60 percent of children suffer from chronic or acute malnutrition or are underweight.

According to WFP, food security prospects in Zimbabwe for 2012 and 2013 are the worst in the last three years. As of March 2013, some 1.7 million (19 percent of the rural population) were in a condition of food insecurity, a significant increase from 1.3 million the previous year. The worst affected areas are Matebeleland North and South and Masvingo, as well as parts of Mashonaland, Midlands and Manicaland, according to the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment. "A drop in food production explains much of the increase in vulnerability," says WFP.

Commercial Farmers Union head Charles Taffs says that food production stands at annual production estimates of 833,000 tons, down by 60,000 tons from last year, and compared to more than 2 million tons harvested in 2000. A regional NGO, Centre for Applied Legal Research (CALR), says that although there has been some improved production in the agricultural sub-sectors such as tobacco, cotton and poultry, the country faces major challenges from cheap imports coming from outside. With more and more small-scale farmers going into tobacco, the future for food security in Zimbabwe looks bleak.

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