Agricultural inputs are hard to find on shop shelves in rural areas, and farmers in many parts of the country are yet to prepare the land for the coming farming season.
Zimbabwe’s hope of economic revival – after successive years of drought and lack of investment in its controversial land reform programme – rests on the performance of the agricultural sector, the backbone of the country’s industrial and manufacturing sectors.
The government said it would target 500,000 hectares of land for food production in 2008 under a "Champion Farmer" programme, and pledged 10 million litres of diesel, 12,000 tonnes of seed and 450,000 tonnes of fertiliser for selected farmers.
Champion Farmers are those the government has deemed productive and worthy of reward. However, their numbers have not been revealed, and there have been no reports as to whether any inputs have actually been delivered. For ordinary farmers, this season is little different from the successive years of rising fertiliser and fuel costs.
"The problem we are facing today is perennial; the government has not learnt any lessons from the past," said Nicholas Nyathi, a small-scale farmer in Nyamandlovu, which used to be a prime farming area in the southern region of Matabeleland.
"We are now supposed to be preparing the land for farming – the first rains are due in a few weeks’ time – but we do not have any seed and fertiliser in place. We are headed for the same disaster we have witnessed before."
Opposition politician and agricultural expert Renson Gasela has attacked the Champion Farmer strategy, both as a concept and in terms of delivery. "There are no inputs on the ground, and what we are hearing from the press is that a lot is being done to assist targeted farmers, and those targeted are said to be top farmers, but the number of top farmers is small compared to over one million small-scale farmers around the country."
Urgent aid needed
Defending the targeted input programme, Morris Sakubaya, deputy minister of local government, said beneficiary farmers should share the equipment and inputs with those not on the government’s scheme.
"The inputs and equipment the government is distributing are meant to benefit all Zimbabweans, and the beneficiaries under this scheme should support and share with those that did not benefit from the farm input scheme," Sakubaya said.
The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, has called for urgent aid to avert a humanitarian disaster that will affect Zimbabwe before its next harvest. An estimated 3.8 million people would be classed as food insecure between now and the end of the year, rising to over five million – close to half the 12 million population – in the first three months of 2009.
However, the UN 2008 Consolidated Humanitarian Appeal for Zimbabwe was funded in September at just 60 percent of the US$394 million required. Critically underfunded sectors include emergency agriculture and education; funds for health, water and sanitation are also low.
"This is worrying at a time when the people of Zimbabwe urgently need food, seeds, fertilisers and essential drugs, among so many other priorities," Holmes said in September. "While the humanitarian community must urgently step up immediate interventions, I call on the donor community to step up its funding in parallel, particularly to priority sectors and projects."
The inability of the agricultural sector to produce enough food, as well as the difficulties of importing foodstuffs due to a foreign exchange crunch, has contributed to the growing food gap.
"Spiralling inflation, deteriorating physical infrastructure, the inability of the public sector to deliver basic social services, and the severe impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic have led to a decline in the overall health and well-being of the population," the UN’s appeal document notes.
"The erosion of livelihoods, food insecurity, rising malnutrition and the possibility of disease outbreaks are putting the already vulnerable population under further distress."