Zimbabwe received erratic rains during the last summer cropping season and current expert forecasts are pointing towards the possibility of yet another drought.
What this scenario depicts is a country on the verge of a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions if the authorities assume a business as usual approach towards averting the mass starvation threatening to devour our country.
The beauty about the situation that confronts us as a country regarding hunger is that it is avoidable for as long as government assumes a pragmatic approach in dealing with the situation on the ground.
In the 2020 National Budget statement, the Minister of Finance and Economic Development Professor Mthuli Ncube noted that about US$467.9 million is required for grain importation and the amount comes down to US$315.8 million after deducting for the US$152.1 million that has been mobilised under the revised Flash appeal.
At the same time, close to US$300 million is required to finance the 2019/20 summer season and the amount is required to import chemicals, fertilisers, and seed among other imports.
This huge foreign exchange bill of a strategic nature is coming at a time when the country is afflicted with severe balance of payments pressures that continue to manifest through fuel shortages, electricity blackouts and a literally collapsing social services sector occasioned by shortages of essential medical drugs and water treatment chemicals, among other scarcities.
The above situation plainly attests to a clear problem statement where our collective survival as Zimbabweans depend on how we deploy our limited resource envelope towards mitigating the impact of the current drought and possibly the one that is forecasted.
In the interest of simplicity and clarity, the dichotomous choice that Zimbabwe faces today is whether to channel the little foreign currency it has towards procurement of maize and possibly wheat in order to immediately save the lives of millions of Zimbabweans or to play Russian Roulette with precious lives of fellow Zimbabweans by deploying the scarce foreign currency towards the so-called agriculture funding.
The reasoning in making this strategic national choice is not rocket science and my fervent prayer is that the basic logic will not evade the authorities at this critical hour of need.
The following are some the compelling reasons why government needs to prioritise maize importation ahead of the dicey funding of agriculture at this moment:
Uncertainty of agriculture output
All production processes, worse still complicated value chains typical of agriculture are susceptible to risks that affect output, thereby creating unforeseen variance between intended and realised results.
This is a normal risk to take during normal times but a totally self-defeating and indeed cruel choice for a country facing immediate starvation if food is not imported immediately. This becomes particularly noteworthy in a country like Zimbabwe at the moment where most of the agricultural production systems are still based on medieval and chancy rain-fed agriculture.
Average yields in Zimbabwe, especially under dry land, have ranged from 0.4-0.9 tonnes for the past few seasons except for the 2016/17 season when the average yield reached around 1.1 tonnes per hectare. The country experienced good rains during that season.
Reason, and respect for the precious lives of Zimbabwe, therefore, points to the sobering conclusion that it is currently not worthwhile to support farmers using scarce foreign currency given the urgency of food requirements and potential low yields.
History of inefficient input-output dynamics
With the fiasco of command agriculture still fresh in our minds, only the unwise can choose to divert scarce foreign exchange into risky private pockets under the guise of financing agriculture at a time when hunger and starvation has already begun to affect millions of vulnerable Zimbabweans.
It is now in the public domain what today Grain Marketing Board (GMB) is empty because the same shady characters salivating for national foreign exchange resources under the pretext of wanting to farm and feed the nation failed irrespective of heavy funding during the five or so years of command agriculture.
The same farmers also play yoyo with people’s lives as they hold deliveries to the GMB as well as demand a higher producer price to compensate for low yields.
At the same time, the rate of loan recoveries from the farmers is well below 30 percent and hence under the current circumstances it makes more sense to import grain than finance agriculture.
Basic cost and convenience logic of importing Vs farming at the moment
Based on international prices for grain, the country can import close to 800 000 metric tonnes of maize using the US$300 million that is required for financing growing for this season. As already explained in this article, supporting farmers with no irrigation given the adverse forecast entails a huge risk on the part of Government and also the need to raise more additional resources to still import grain.
In addition to the USD component, the same farmers would require other locally denominated support that runs into billions. It may be worthwhile to admit that we have lost the 2019/20 season and start planning for the 2020/21 season. As envisaged, the inputs for 2020/21 can be procured gradually during the course of next year in a manner that does not cause pressures in the economy.
In the realm of strategy they say “ the best among generals is one who carefully assesses the battle situation and makes timely decisions to save his troops and give them a chance to fight another day even if it means losing one two battles in the process”
Similarly for Zimbabwe, now is the moment when national leadership should appreciate that we can afford to lose a single agricultural season while saving precious Zimbabwean lives and come back next season stronger and more prepared to produce food for our country.
Andrew Lampard is a retired banker who worked in Zimbabwe and South Africa. For views and comments e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org