Dry spell endangers Zimbabwe crops, government says has enough maize reserves

HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwe is experiencing a dry spell that could cut crop yields, a farmers’ union said on Monday, but a government official said the country had enough grain reserves to last until next year.

The southern African nation produced 2.1 million tonnes of the staple maize last year, the highest in two decades thanks to above normal rainfall and government funding to farmers.

But rains have been erratic so far since the summer cropping season started at the end of November, while a long dry spell this month has raised alarm among farmers.

Ben Gilpin, a director at the Commercial Farmers Union, said crops in the maize producing belts were showing signs of moisture stress while in the northern and southern parts of the country crops were wilting.

Gilpin said early planted crops, which were at the critical flowering and tussling stages, urgently required rain water but those planted later could already be a complete right-off.

“What we are seeing is that the crop situation is pretty dire throughout the country. In the more marginal areas crops are already wilting,” Gilpin said.

The U.S. Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fewsnet) in its January report said the poor rains were expected to affect the availability of seasonal green crops for consumption.

“The high likelihood of below-average rains for the remainder of the season is likely to significantly reduce crop yields and harvests across most parts of the country,” said Fewsnet.

Gilpin said the tobacco crop, which reaps more than $800 million annually and is the economy’s second-biggest export earner, was had not been affected yet because it was more resistant to dry spells.

In 2016 Zimbabwe suffered a severe drought, which left more than four million people facing hunger.

New President Emmerson Mnangagwa who came to power in November after a de facto military coup that forced Robert Mugabe to resign has said reviving the agriculture sector is one of his main goals to ensure food security in future.

Agriculture has been starved of large-scale investment since Mugabe’s government began its seizure of white-owned farms in 2000, but Mnangagwa has said he welcomes investment, including from the white farmers whom he has promised to compensate.

David Marapira, the deputy minister of agriculture, said although rains had been sparse, the country was holding enough grains in its reserves after the state grain agency bought excess maize from farmers. He said farmers were also holding maize reserves from last year.

“Yes the rains have not been adequate so far but we do have in our strategic reserves more than 500,000 tonnes of maize that will last the country for a year,” said Marapira.

Patchy rains and pest outbreaks have also threatened maize production in Zambia and Malawi, while Reuters journalists who traveled to Lesotho this weekend saw fields of stunted maize that looked in poor condition