Stunted cobs in a dry maize field in the Mutoko rural area of Zimbabwe. Picture: AFP/JEKESAI NJIKIZANA
Stunted cobs in a dry maize field in the Mutoko rural area of Zimbabwe. Picture: AFP/JEKESAI NJIKIZANA

Harare — Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government will scrap its plan to remove grain subsidies in 2020, a move it says will protect impoverished citizens from rising food prices, state media reported on Thursday.

The country is experiencing its worst economic crisis in a decade, marked by soaring inflation and shortages of food, fuel, medicines and electricity.

Half Zimbabwe’s population needs food aid after a devastating drought across Southern Africa, worsened by an economy expected to shrink by 6.5% in 2019 and with month-on-month inflation at a four-month high of 38.75%.

Zimbabwe’s grain agency buys grain from farmers and releases it into the market at subsidised prices, costing the treasury tens of millions of US dollars. The government had planned to remove the subsidy in its 2020 budget.

Mnangagwa was quoted in the state-owned Herald newspaper as saying that would no longer happen. “We cannot remove the subsidy. So I am restoring it so that the price of mealie-meal is also reduced [in 2020].” Last week, the government removed import controls on maize and wheat flour to try to prevent food shortages.

The removal of the government’s grain subsidy would have seen a 10kg bag of maize meal, the country’s staple, costing Zim$102  (about US$6.30), compared to Zim$60 now, in a country with 90% unemployment.

Zimbabwe’s reintroduction of a local currency after 10 years of dollarisation, coupled with the removal of subsidies on fuel and electricity, unleashed inflation, triggering frequent and sometimes deadly protests against Mnangagwa’s government.

Rights groups say at least 17 people were killed and hundreds arrested in January, after security forces cracked down on protests against fuel price increases. Police have banned further protests.

UN special rapporteur to Zimbabwe Hilal Elver said in Harare on Thursday that Zimbabwe is facing “man-made” starvation with 60% of people failing to get their basic food needs met. Elver ranked Zimbabwe among the four top countries facing severe food shortage outside nations in conflict zones.

‘Shocking’ numbers

“The people of Zimbabwe are slowly getting to a point of suffering a man-made starvation,” she told a news conference in Harare after an 11-day tour, adding that 8-million people would be affected by the end of 2019, and that this “requires urgent action to reduce food consumption gaps and save livelihoods ... Today, Zimbabwe counts among the four highest food insecure states”.

She said poor harvests are compounded by hyperinflation. “A staggering 5.5-million people are currently facing food insecurity” in rural areas due to a drought that has affected harvests, she said. Another 2.2-million people in urban areas also face food shortage and lack access to minimum public services, including health services and safe water. Elver described the numbers as “shocking”.

The economy, crippled by decades of mismanagement under former president Robert Mugabe, has failed to rebound under Mnangagwa, who took over two years ago.

“Political polarisation, economic and financial problems and erratic climatic conditions all contribute to the storm of food insecurity currently facing a country once seen as the breadbasket of Africa,” Elver said. She warned that food insecurity heightened “the risks of civil unrest and insecurity”. 

Reuters, AFP