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Will political history repeat itself? Zimbabwe’s 2008 and 2022 inflation-food crises.

The banner of the nation which quickly turned into a statement of ridicule was Zimbabwe’s position as the” breadbasket of Africa.” Although this assertion is empirically questionable it highlighted a certain truth which was Zimbabwe’s ability through an elitist, racialized agricultural system to comparatively produce a lot of food. The current Ukraine war, the inflationary and supply chain headaches, and the climate crisis has brought the nation into a tricky situation where it is highly questionable whether there will be enough food to feed the nation and even worse, will citizens be able to afford it? Compounded by Zimbabwe’s seemingly inherent misgovernance crisis, the key question is whether the food crisis may lay the foundation for another political crisis like it did in 2008/9?

Maize and wheat form two key staples in the country’s diet. The two combine to form the bedrock of the nation’s regular diets that affect most breakfasts, lunches, and supper. Such an esteemed position means that government backing through finance and inputs is regular and expected. Over the last five years, this support has taken a new dimension through the Command Agriculture and Intwasa/Pfumvudza`farming schemes. The goal of these schemes was to ensure food, nutrition, and livelihood security at household and national level as well as climate-proof agricultural production against climate change. Government through the two key banks of CBZ Holdings and AFC Holdings provided loans to both large- and small-scale farmers with the agreement being that farmers would sell their produce back to government.

Despite the Covid-19 crisis, the 2020/21 season was successful mainly due to higher-than-expected rainfalls. The contrast with the 2021/22 rainfall season could not have been any stronger. The rainfall was below average which was highlighted by a relatively long mid-season dry period which decimated a lot of the expected yield. A perfect storm has now been created triggered by the Ukraine war. The war has caused fertilizer prices to shoot up by as much as 200%. With Belarus, Ukraine and Russia exporting several agricultural products especially fertilizer to the global market, this has forced Zimbabwean farmers with the difficult decision of cutting down on acreage under production.

Additionally, the inflation crisis in Zimbabwe has begun to morph into a hyperinflation crisis similar to the 2008/09 period, has structurally driven millions of Zimbabweans into poverty. Maize and wheat are controlled commodities in Zimbabwe meaning that government decides the price at which it is bought and for those farmers who received inputs from government through the Command Agriculture and Intwasa/Pfumvudza Programs are mandated to sell to government. Inflation is devaluing the government maize buying price which currently stands at about 50% of the global maize price. This has triggered a flurry of side marketing from farmers as they seek to gain just rewards for their work at fair market prices. This has also triggered non-payment of loans by farmers which is currently placing the next farming season of 2022/23 into jeopardy.

The broad overlay of the agricultural industry that I have provided is to give context to the larger political issue at hand which is the 2023 elections. The agricultural industry is the most politically heated economic industry in Zimbabwe. The ZANU-PF government have held close control over it since the 2000s Land reform program and that has continued to the present day. The rural vote is key to the democratic façade they put on stage every five years during general elections. That façade dissipates whenever hunger levels increase in rural areas.

The impending food crisis coupled with high inflation before a national election is history repeating itself. In 2008, the global food crisis had a telling effect on the local economy. A lot of analysts in 2008 argued that hyperinflation was the main cause of hunger then. However, there was oversight around the global food crisis at that time. Wheat, maize and soya-bean reached all time highs which have been surpassed as noted in the Fig 1. from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) below.

Fig 1: FAO Food Price Index 1997-2022

As noted in the diagram, 2022 food prices have eclipsed the 2008 food prices by about 20% which is a staggering amount. This has reflected in the rising of prices in United States dollars across Zimbabwe which has come as a shock to many who assumed that that greenback is immune to inflation. Sometimes, graphs do not do well to explain the struggle rural communities are going through. For example, a 20L bucket of maize during 2021 averaged about $3USD/bucket. As I write this article, the average price is $5USD/bucket with projections that by September it can rise to as much as $10USD/bucket. Therefore, the World Food Program believes 5 million Zimbabweans will go hungry. Already, the bread price in USD terms has increased by at-least 30%.

This analysis will have political repercussions which government is trying to alleviate. There is still time before the next election for another full farming season however the danger is due to unpredictable rains and fertilizer prices that are expected to remain above 200% compared to last year, the government might fail to provide adequate inputs. As shown in 2008, the rural community amid fear tactics will vote against ZANU PF when hunger levels rise to this extent.

This reading sounds good to opposition politicians who will be baying for the opportunity to snatch rural votes from ZANU PF, the situation in 2008 and 2022 is different on some key issues. Firstly, Zimbabweans unlike 2008 do have access and permission to use United States Dollars. As noted by a few economists, it is believed that there is as much as USD$2 billion underneath peoples’ pillows amusingly called the National Pillow Bank of Zimbabwe (NPBZ). This buffer will allow people to draw on these savings to stave off hunger. Government has also recently slashed import duties on staples as well as basic goods which should have an effect of stabilizing prices in the short to medium term.

One opportunity that the government has that they have not fully utilized is replacing synthetic fertilizers with organic fertilizers. The current response to the huge fertilizer price increases has focused on ramping up production of synthetic fertilizers. However, this strategy is reliant on natural gas prices coming down (a key component of fertilizer is ammonia which is produced from natural gas). The Intwasa/Pfumvudza Program was and is still an important opportunity to increase the share of organic fertilizers by as much as 50% amongst subsistence farmers and 25% amongst large scale farmers. However, it would require a national education and training effort to systematize the use of compost, vermicompost and mulch. The biggest challenge to this will be the agriculture cartels that rely on synthetic fertilizers being at the centre of Zimbabwe’s agricultural system.

In the wake of the health crisis, a food crisis has ratcheted up inflation across the world and every day, millions of families are beginning to make the difficult decision of reducing the number and quality of meals. Zimbabwean rural and urban poor are part of those millions. If the trend of high food prices and inflation continues, there is a genuine risk like in 2008 that these twin crises will trigger a huge demand for political change in Zimbabwe. Only time will tell. The clock is ticking.

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