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Hungry for answers: Zimbabwe’s apparent food crisis

Following on from the World Food Programme’s (WFP) press release that 2.2 million people will be in need of food aid in the coming months, newspapers have been full of commentary on a looming food crisis in Zimbabwe. The Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) has labelled the estimated food shortfalls a “man-made crisis”, a direct result of the “chaotic” land reform and a decade of inappropriate policies.

For a country of 13.72 million people, 2.2 million represents a very large figure. Such a high number of food-insecure people would require substantial volumes of food imports, far beyond the means of the country’s Finance Ministry.

Where has this 2.2 million figure come from?
The figure is calculated using data from the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVac), livelihood assessment draft report for 2013.

Each year ZimVac, a coalition of NGOs, researchers and government agencies, undertake a major rural livelihood assessment, based on a sample of over 10,000 households across the country. The sample is drawn from the latest ZIMSTAT ‘master sampling frame’, and the resulting data is meant to be representative of the country as a whole. It is an informative initiative, but it has its deficiencies, as those involved readily admit.

The process for calculating the headline figure is complex. It involves assessing each household’s total cereal production, and then adding in income from employment, remittances, livestock sales, and other sources of income that could be used to buy food. Assumptions on prices and market availability are used to translate income into food and energy.

The food security assessment is based on the household’s potential access to enough food from all sources, including purchases, to give each member a minimum of 2100 kilocalories per day in the consumption period, 1 April 2013 to 31 March 2014. The total food deficit figure is then calculated as a sum of all of those experiencing any negative balance in the accounting period.

It is a complicated procedure with many steps and plenty of assumptions. What the headline figure doesn’t indicate – although the report does, and the background documents for the ZimVac surveys over the years are quite transparent about this – is that the headline number includes many people who may have a projected deficit for a very short period of time.

Indeed, at the time of the survey in May 2013, over 80% of households surveyed had no hunger problems, with only a very small proportion recording ‘severe hunger’. The report shows that there is a progression of food insecurity, with a peak of 2.2m people expected in January to March 2014. 31% of the total (683,000 people) move into food deficit only during this crunch period before the next harvest; some of whom may in fact be food insecure for only a few days.

The 2.2 million figure is, of course, a good flag-waving number for the WFP to raise funds, and for the CFU to bash the government for the land reform – even President Mugabe is now joining the critique of the ‘new farmers’ – but the actual implications are more complex.

A figure of concern
There are numerous reasons why there should be caution concerning the 2.2 million figure. There is almost certainly – as frequently occurs in surveys – an under-reporting of income, and therefore, purchasing power. Since in drought years market purchases are essential for food entitlements, this is rather crucial.

Also, food insecurity is not evenly distributed throughout the country. As the report shows, the problems are concentrated in the dry south of the country, which experienced the worst season in terms of rainfall and its distribution.

Remittances are especially important in drought-prone areas, yet the figures used in the model for this year are based on recall of last year’s receipts. Last year was a relatively good year for rural production, and so remittance flows inevitably dropped. However, this year they will most probably increase in response to the shortfalls. For perfectly sound reasons, the model does not account for this, but it is an additional reason why it is expected that food shortages may not be as bad as predicted.

Another issue concerning the calculation of the “2.2 million” figure is that the assessment model allows for only limited sales of livestock to compensate for food deficits -households are assumed to retain a minimum of five goats and three cattle. Yet livestock is precisely the asset that is used in the drier parts of the country to exchange for grain in times of drought, and distress sales are common, as well as crucial for food security.

Finally, the assessment does not include early cropping – for example of green maize – which is often important in that crunch period before the ‘proper’ harvest.

For all these reasons and more, we should be cautious about the headline statistics, and understand in more detail what happens to whom and where.

Figuring out the consequences
So what should we make of all this? Certainly food deficits are going to be a problem in the coming months. However, problems will be concentrated in a certain time period, and a few areas and the more vulnerable people aside, it’s not going to be as bad as the headline figure and the media commentary perhaps suggests. Imports will certainly be needed, and targeted food aid will be important, but other coping strategies will also come into play to offset the worst.

Indeed, there seems to have been a pattern in place for many years now. There is a ritualised flurry of activity around this time of year, with aid agencies calling for funds to support food aid, and those critical of land reform saying that this ‘proves’ that Zimbabwe has gone from food producer to ‘basket case’. Yet by the end of the season, the expected famine has not occurred and although hardships unquestionably are faced, the scale and depth of the problem is not as expected.

This can be explained due to both sampling and non-sampling errors inherent in the standard surveys; but also significantly because assessments have not got to grips with the new patterns of production – particularly in areas dominated by small-holders – or with the method of selling products at market – mostly informal. This will require new, and more-attuned, data collection techniques.

Unfortunately, too often the apparent “emergency” humanitarian aid and disaster relief momentum overrides discussion of the developmental issues, and the scramble for food aid and all the associated politicking diverts attention and resources away from long term solutions.

Rural development challenges are many. They include the need to invest in irrigation to offset drought vulnerability, the need for investment and reforms to ensure timely supply of inputs, a pricing and market policy to balance incentives between food and cash crops, a livestock policy that ensures such assets are secure and available in times of need, and, overall, more concerted support for areas where people have been resettled, to ensure that they can indeed supply the nation with food.

Source Ian Scoones (ThinkAfricaPress)

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