Worse is likely to come.
Combined with poor harvests, political unrest, eroded salaries, and an ongoing currency crisis, the rising costs mean the ability of many Zimbabweans to grow or afford a basic meal is under threat. More than two million people are predicted to need humanitarian food assistance this year, despite government claims to the contrary.
Crop harvests in many parts of the country have been written off due to poor rains and erratic weather patterns. Freda Mbewe, 63, is among those worst affected.
For years Mbewe grew maize in her small backyard in a working class township in Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo. She processed it into mealie meal to make isitshwala, a traditional porridge that’s a staple for many in her community.
“I could get up to 10 20-litre buckets of maize from my field,” she said – enough to last her a few months, with some left over to sell. “There are no rains this season,” she said. “I cannot even afford the price of mealie meal.”
Shelves in some stores are running low on basic produce, while those few main supermarkets that are still fully stocked with imported staples have raised their prices to offset their increased costs.
“Old people are feeling it the most because they have no means or power to look for money,” said Jenni Williams, coordinator of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, or WOZA, a rights group that works with communities in Bulawayo.
“Food aid would be a welcome relief, but should not come at the hands of politicians,” Williams said, a thinly veiled reference to past allegations that the ruling ZANU-PF party has prioritised assistance to its supporters.
Faith-based organisations in the city are coordinating efforts to provide food assistance, especially for the elderly like Mbewe. Around the country, international aid groups, including the World Food Programme and USAID’s Office of Food for Peace, are assisting the most vulnerable.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation has said 2.4 million people, about 28 percent of the rural population, will be food insecure by March 2019, largely as a result of “reduced output and low purchasing power”.
FEWS NET, a US-funded food security and malnutrition watchdog, issued a 1 February alert for Zimbabwe entitled: “Sharp macroeconomic decline expected to drive high prices and humanitarian assistance needs.”
It noted that food relief efforts targeted 234,000 people in 11 districts in December, but that “plans are in place to scale up to approximately 1.1 million people” in 30 of the country’s 59 districts during the peak of the January-March lean season.
“Poor households are accessing lower than normal agricultural labour opportunities given poor seasonal performance since October, and many are likely to harvest crops later than normal in May,” the bulletin said. “Given the increased cost to suppliers in transporting their products and milling grains, the costs of basic commodities in rural areas have increased significantly and in some cases are considered prohibitive for poor households.”
According to the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee, or ZimVac, up to 92 percent of rural households in the country rely on agriculture as their primary livelihood. Even so, farmers last year delivered just 1.2 million tonnes of maize to the Grain Marketing Board, less than two thirds of the country’s annual consumption of up to 1.9 million tonnes.
Despite this deficit, Labour and Social Welfare Minister Sekai Nzenza has insisted that Zimbabwe has enough food reserves.
Food production was also dealt a severe knock by the fuel price increase as farmers reported they were failing to access fuel for generators for their irrigation projects, leading to large scale losses as crops wilted.
Even if there is enough grain, this doesn’t mean those who need it can afford it.
Between September 2018 and January 2019, maize grain prices increased between 50 and 200 percent, FEWS NET said, while the prices of sugar, wheat flour, and bread rose between 35 and 100 percent, and cooking oil by over 300 percent during the same period.