Food crisis to persist

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net) has recommended that the government remove price controls on food staples and other items to enlist the support of the market to help distribute supplies and moderate prices.

The government introduced wholesale price controls last year but most analysts say they are not working. The price controls have instead fuelled the black market.

Products disappear from shop shelves as soon as price controls are announced only to resurface on the black market at prices three or more times the controlled price.

The recent devaluation of the dollar by over 1 300 percent has made prices of some of the controlled products ridiculous.

Maize meal, for example, is supposed to sell for $500 a 20 kg bag but is available at over $3 000. In some cases, a 5 kg bag sells for more than $2 000. The prices are so ridiculous that a 50 kg bag of maize is supposed to sell for $550, less than the price of four cobs of roasted green mealies.

The low prices have promoted hoarding and the black market as millers are quite aware of the huge profits they can make by creating artificial shortages.

But in a surprise move FEWS Net which has reported over the past two months that maize imported by the government and non-governmental organisations up to mid-January was more than enough to feed the nation, leaving a surplus of over 200 000 tonnes is now saying all indicators point to worsening food insecurity in 2003.

In its report for mid-February, it had said the food shortages should start easing because some people would start eating green mealies and by this month they should be harvesting the early crop.

But in its report published on February 24, the United States Agency for International Development -funded project says pre-famine conditions continue to tighten their grip on Zimbabwe, where people in two-thirds of the country will continue to be food insecure in 2003.

The report says the current grain harvest could fall by as much as 20 percent below last year's level and 77 percent below the recent five-year average.

Last year, the country harvested just over 500 000 tonnes of maize, a third of the national requirement. The report says a recent vulnerability survey had indicated that 9 out of 10 rural communities were now relying on unusual coping mechanisms which included the sale of wild fruits, gold panning and prostitution.

A third of the country's population is infected with HIV/AIDS. FEWS Net says after four consecutive years of crop failure, some households in central districts such as Kwekwe in the Midlands and Gwanda in Matebeleland South have bought the rights to tend and subsequently harvest plots of immature maize in the northern districts such as Hurungwe in Mashonaland West.

But it points out that only those with cash can afford this. FEWS Net says as many as 3.7 million people from rural areas and 850 000 from urban areas will require food aid this year.

It says while the country needs about 150 000 tonnes a month, imports at the moment are averaging 70 000 tonnes, less than half the country's requirements.

The country will need to import between 930 000 tonnes and 1.3 million tonnes to meet the deficit for the coming marketing season which begins next month.

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