After years of relying on food handouts, Zimbabwe expects this year to have a substantial maize harvest. But the government must make the crop more attractive to farmers to further ease the perennial hunger problem.
For the first time in almost two decades, Zimbabwe will produce enough maize to be able to export the grain, the country's Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa said on Friday.
"Indications from the areas I have toured to date suggest that we are headed for a bumper harvest," Mnangagwa said at a meeting in Zimbabwe's capital Harare.
Thanks largely to above-average rainfall in the 2016/2017 season and a government-funded initiative providing crop inputs to farmers, the projected maize yield will be upward of two million tons, the vice president said.
The so-called "targeted command agriculture" scheme is a nation-wide policy that provided Zimbabwe's farmers with crop inputs, such as seed, chemicals and fertilizer, in order to plant maize ahead of the planting season late last year.
The scheme encouraged farmers to prioritize the country's staple crop over commercial crops, like tobacco, that have a higher profit margin.
Out of the woods
The good news comes as Zimbabwe emerges from the region's worst drought in at least two decades. The crippling famine affected more than a quarter of the country's population.
Last year, President Robert Mugabe declared a state of emergency in many rural areas hit by the drought that also affected other southern African countries, including Zambia, Malawi and South Africa.
Earlier this year, after boreholes had dried up, dams depleted and tens of thousands of cattle were lost due to poor rainfall, Zimbabwe was then devastated by floods that swept through the southern parts of the country, compounding its problems.
The United Nations, which has been leading efforts to ease food insecurity in the former breadbasket of southern Africa, said that despite ongoing challenges Zimbabwe is now out of the woods.
"I would say, frankly speaking, there may be elements of food insecurity but there is no hunger," said Bishow Parajuli, the UN resident coordinator in Zimbabwe. "We were facing lots of challenges when the drought came in, but the pro-activeness of the government and strong partnership addressed all issues of famine and hunger. Of course there is food insecurity, malnutrition issues and that is what we are working on at the moment. "
A new dilemma
After years of trying to figure out how to best import provisions, Zimbabwe is now facing new food challenges.
"Last October we were talking about the logistics of importing maize," said Basil Nyabadza, the chairman of the Agricultural Rural Development Authority board. "Today, six months later, we are talking about to store grain produced in Zimbabwe."
Nyabadza said the government must look beyond outsourcing food security, and towards the economic development of Zimbabwe's own farmers and crops.
Encouraging farmers to stick with maize
The government now needs to find ways to make maize production more attractive to more of the country's farmers, says Paul Zacharia, the executive director of the Zimbabwe Farmers Union.
Although Zimbabwe has currently pegged local maize at $390 USD (365 euros) per metric ton, the price has not helped to attract farmers to the crop. Unless maize farming remains subsidized under the targeted command agriculture scheme, and the government starts paying farmers on time, farmers will stick to cash crops like tobacco and peas, Zacharia added.
"It is business. By default many, many farmers would be producing maize - if it means I am going to make money out of maize, then I am going to grow maize," he said. "But if peas is paying me, out of the returns from my peas I can buy maize for a whole year and still continue to grow high value crops."
To capitalize on this season's projected maize haul, initiatives like targeted command agriculture should be implemented to maintain momentum, Zimbabwe's vice president said.
"Going forward, it is vital that we deliberately develop strategies to enhance productivity by surpassing the tonnage achieved in the 2016/2017 summer planting season,” Mnangagwa said.
Columbus Mavhunga contributed to this article