Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Food security options in Zimbabwe: multiple threats, multiple opportunities?

Working papers

Working papers

In the first half of 2002 it became clear that Southern Africa was at risk of a food and humanitarian crisis. Between February and April 2002 the governments of Lesotho, Malawi, and Zimbabwe declared emergencies, while in Mozambique an emergency plan to combat the effects of drought was begun. Subsequently in July 2002 the UN issued a consolidated appeal for US$611 million to address the crisis in the six countries most affected: Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

At the height of the crisis, in late 2002 and early 2003, nearly 15 million people, fully 25% of the population of the six countries, were considered food insecure. In response large amounts of additional food were shipped into the region, including food aid provided by donors.

These events prompt three sets of questions, namely:

  • What exactly took place during the crisis?
  • What were its causes? And,
  • What policy lessons are there to be learned to prevent or mitigate similar occurrences in future?

In April 2002 the government of Zimbabwe declared a “national drought disaster”, as it became clear that the harvest due in April-May 2002 was to be poor. The previous harvest in 2001 had also been low, at 74% of the previous five-year average: the 2002 harvest was to be lower still, at just over half of that mean. In the hungry season of the ensuing crop marketing year, 2002–03, around 6M persons were assessed as needing emergency food relief, with 705,000 tonnes of food aid in cereals planned for distribution by donors.

This was hardly the end of the crisis: the 2003 harvest proved to be even lower than the previous two, at just 41% of the average for 1996–2000. The World Food Programme, as well as other donors, continued emergency feeding in Zimbabwe in the 2003–04 marketing season, planning to feed 3.5M people with 330,000 tonnes of cereals.

Estimates of the harvest of April-May 2004 are disputed: the government claims a more than adequate yield of well over 2M tonnes of cereals; FAO and other sources doubt that more than 0.8M tonnes were harvested ⎯ less than half the 1996–2000 average.

The run of poor harvests is exceptional. While some of the problems can be blamed on poor weather in the cropping season, the manner of implementation of the fast-track resettlement programme, other food policies, and the context of a failing economy clearly play a substantial role in the crisis.

The current problems bring issues of food insecurity into sharp relief, but well before these events, a large fraction of Zimbabwe’s citizens were food insecure. In 1999–2000, FAO estimated that food in Zimbabwe was, on average, available to the value of 2,100 Kcal a person a day ⎯ just about the minimum required to meet average energy needs.5 But that does not mean that all Zimbabweans were adequately fed. As Table 2 shows, some 39% of Zimbabweans were not sufficiently well nourished. This figure is above the average for Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, and more than twice the developing world average. Given that Zimbabwe had been, until the recent economic downturn, a country with income above the average for the continent, the extent of under-nutrition is as surprising as it is alarming.

Although some progress was made in the 1990s towards reducing the share of the population under-nourished, absolute numbers rose to reach 4.9M by the end of the decade. Since then, as will be explained, most of the factors affecting food security have moved adversely, so it is likely that by 2004 the numbers of the ill-fed will have risen still further.