HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe says it is on the verge of its biggest wheat harvest in history, thanks in large part to efforts to overcome food supply problems caused by war in Ukraine. But bushfires and impending rains threaten crops that have yet to be harvested.
Like other African countries, Zimbabwe has relied for decades on imports to compensate for low local production. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to global shortages and price hikes, the country wanted to ensure “self-sufficiency at all costs”, Deputy Agriculture Minister Vangelis Haritatos said this week. at the Associated Press.
The country expects to harvest 380,000 tonnes of wheat, “20,000 more than what we need as a country”, Haritatos said. This represents around 300,000 tonnes produced last year.
“We are likely to get the highest tonnage since 1962 when wheat was first introduced in Zimbabwe. Many countries are facing shortages, but the opposite is happening in Zimbabwe,” Haritatos said.
As other hunger-stricken African countries grapple with reduced wheat imports due to the war in Ukraine, Zimbabwe plans to use its projected grain surplus to build up “a small strategic reserve” for first time in its history, Agriculture Minister Anxious Masuka told reporters earlier this month. This would protect Zimbabwe against future shocks.
Masuka said Zimbabwe plans to increase wheat production to around 420,000 tonnes next season, giving the country the chance to continue building up its strategic reserve and become a grain exporter. Wheat is Zimbabwe’s most important strategic crop after maize.
African countries – which imported 44% of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine between 2018 and 2020, according to UN figures – have been hit hard by global shortages and rising grain prices in the wake of the war. The African Development Bank has reported a 45% increase in wheat prices on the continent.
African nations were at the center of Western efforts to reopen Ukrainian ports as the United States and its allies accused Russia of starving the world by denying exports from Ukraine, one of the world’s top grain exporters. African leaders have also traveled to Russia to meet Putin on the issue.
Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa in April described the war in Ukraine as a “wake-up call” for countries to grow their own food.
The response in Zimbabwe has been to empower local farmers, said Haritatos, the deputy agriculture minister.
This included engaging hundreds of small rural farmers to start growing a crop that was traditionally reserved for large commercial farmers, improving water supply infrastructure and distributing fertilizer to small farmers as well as increasing private sector participation. The crop was first introduced to areas and farmers who had never grown wheat before.
Winter maize production has given way to wheat in many areas as Zimbabwe relies on maize reserves to meet demand for the staple. Land used for growing wheat has fallen from 66,000 hectares (163,089 acres) in 2021 to 75,000 hectares this year and will reach 100,000 hectares next season.
“A lot of countries neglect small farmers because they are so small that individually they cannot bring about much change,” Haritatos said. “But we organized them into clusters and convinced them it was possible. The quality of most of their crops is premium.”
He said the war in Ukraine had made Zimbabwe realize “that we should not rely on other countries for food that we can grow on our own”.
However, Zimbabwe’s wheat is mostly soft and it needs to be blended with imported durum wheat varieties to produce quality flour for bread, according to the Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe. But the government ruled out imports amid the surplus, saying a special permit would be needed.
The wheat harvest extends from October to December. However, farmers and the government are concerned about the threat of raging bushfires and impending rains. They say the fires are more devastating than in previous years as climate change helps extend the dry season.
“Farmers are increasingly concerned about the time factor. It looks like the rains will soon be upon us. Wheat should be taken out of the fields,” said Paul Zakariya, director of the Zimbabwe Farmers Union, which represents smallholders.
Officials said the bushfires destroyed nearly $1 million worth of wheat in a single week in mid-October. Zimbabwe is in the middle of the “fire season”, characterized by intense heat and strong windy and arid conditions that precede the rainy season.
The government says it has deployed more combines to help farmers speed up harvesting and is carrying out fire prevention awareness programs. The country’s environment management agency has described the bushfires as “one of the biggest environmental challenges of our time”.
See AP’s full coverage of the food crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/food-crisis.