Gwanda, Zimbabwe — After plenty of rain, Isaac Siziba’s maize fields looked set for a bumper harvest this season, similar to the one he gathered in 2014, before Zimbabwe suffered a long and punishing drought.

But in February armyworms invaded Siziba’s 4ha farm in Gwanda District and munched through his maize. Now he expects just one-fifth of the harvest he had counted on.

"We were happy with the good rains this year, which means a bumper crop, but I am not sure anymore because of the worm," said the farmer, pointing to holes gnawed in the leaves of his tasselled maize plants. "I am disappointed," he admitted. "The pest is eating everything."

Struggling farmers in Zimbabwe had been hopeful of finally getting a good harvest in March, following the first heavy rains in nearly three years.

But a variety of new problems, from flooding in some regions to the arrival of a destructive Latin American armyworm, now threaten to cut harvests and expectations for recovery, the government and development agencies say.

Zimbabwe could still meet its goal of harvesting the 2-million tonnes of grain the country needs in 2017, if it can stop the armyworm invasion, officials say. But the pest could have affected up to 130,000ha of the country’s staple maize crop, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said.

That is about 11% of the country’s planted maize crop of 1.2-million hectares, according to Joseph Made, Zimbabwe‘s minister of agriculture, mechanisation and irrigation.

Tropical storm Dineo, which hit Mozambique in February, also triggered floods in southern Zimbabwe, leaving more than 240 people dead and close to 2,000 homeless. Earlier in March Zimbabwe’s government declared a national disaster and appealed to international donors for $100m to repair infrastructure.

Maize planting up

Made, the agriculture minister, told parliament recently that 55% more maize had been planted this season compared with last year, when severe drought put many farmers off planting altogether.

The government had budgeted $140m to buy 800,000 tonnes of maize from farmers through the national grain agency, the Grain Marketing Board, he said.

However, Eddie Cross, an MP and an economist, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from Harare that the country was still a long way from achieving food security, even though the harvest would be the best in recent years.

Last year, Zimbabwe declared a drought disaster and appealed for $1.6bn in food aid and humanitarian assistance to help at least 4-million people get by until the next harvest in March 2017.

More than $200m was spent on grain imports, mainly from Zambia, after a harvest that fell far short of national requirements, according to the Zimbabwe Reserve Bank.

Zimbabwe currently has strategic reserves of 250,000 tonnes of maize — enough to last six months, Made said in March.

Last week, Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who also chairs the cabinet committee on food security, told local media that the government had stopped grain imports in anticipation of a bumper crop.

Better – but how much?

Farmers and experts say they are confident the 2017 harvest will be better than 2016’s — but how much better remains unclear.

"At the national level, signs are that there will be a good crop. However, at individual level, there will be problems", particularly with the armyworm pest, David Phiri, the southern Africa representative of FAO, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Phiri said the pest, which has attacked six other countries in southern Africa besides Zimbabwe, was a serious threat to recovery in the drought-hit region. His organisation is helping governments in the region put in place plans to contain the pest.

Governments agreed to create a regional task force to monitor the outbreak at an emergency meeting in Harare in mid-February. The pest is particularly difficult to control as it is a new arrival in southern Africa.

The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), in a regional humanitarian appeal, said nearly 1.7-million tonnes of maize was needed for immediate food assistance in the region until the March harvest.

Maize farmer Siziba said recurring problems with the crop could force him to rethink how he farmed in the future.

The armyworm pest "is turning our celebration into misery", he said. Now, "we will stick with breeding goats. That is our reliable crop."


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