Through the Looking Glass

International organisations just amaze me – especially those involved with the United Nations. Today I read a food security assessment that claims blandly that the cereal deficit in Zimbabwe is 22 per cent for the 2006/07 season. That is from the 1st April 2006 to the 31st March 2007. Not “about” or “estimated”, just 22 per cent. Now where on earth could they be getting the statistics that the figure may be based on?

By my calculations the cereal deficit is much larger than this. Can it be that they are using the figures fabricated by the Minister of Agriculture and destined to be used in the Politburo of the ruling Party? If so, they are living in a fantasy world no different than that occupied by Alice in Wonderland.

If we start with the maize crop – we need 1,2 million tonnes of maize a year for human consumption. 600 000 tonnes for livestock and 120 000 tonnes for industry – starch and breakfast cereals and edible snacks. That is 1,9 million tonnes. We have grown possibly 800 000 tonnes and this leaves a deficit of 1,1 million tonnes – slightly higher than the 1 million tonnes imported last year to cover food shortages.

In respect to the winter wheat crop – the only other significant cereal consumed in Zimbabwe, the crop planted is about 23 000 hectares and yields are expected to be well down on previous years – so I would not expect more than about 50 000 tonnes of wheat. We can ignore the barley crop as that is 90 per cent for beer, the other cereals such as sorghums and millets may reach 100 000 tonnes at best.

Wheat usage has declined with the fall in living standards and most of the sorghum will go into traditional beer manufacture in both the formal and informal sectors. Even so I would estimate we will require at least 350 000 tonnes of wheat and 160 000 tonnes of small grains. Leaving a deficit on these other cereals of 360 000 tonnes. This combined with the maize deficit is 1,36 million tonnes of cereals as against total estimated demand of 2,43 million tonnes or 45 per cent of demand. The total cost of these imports would be US$360 million.

The issue on the table today is what sort of cropping outlook exists for the next season that starts in a few weeks time. Maize plantings any time from the 1st October through to the 15th November before yield potentials start falling off. Cotton more or less the same – perhaps a bit later for the cut off point, oilseed crops – mainly Soybeans also a bit later.

From my perspective the outlook is pretty grim. The tobacco crop is already set – cannot be changed significantly now and looks like 20 000 tonnes – may be a bit higher if the weather is favorable. The preparations for large-scale maize and cotton plantings are minimal – seed is short and fertilizers are difficult to find and very expensive in relation to crop prices. Oilseed contracting by firms is below last year despite vigorous efforts and the dislocation of the remaining commercial farmers is reducing the potential here. By my estimate we can expect no improvement in crop output this coming season – in fact it is more likely to be down as the long-range weather forecasts are negative.

The situation in the mining industry is no better – in fact after holding up mining output in a very negative operating environment, mining output is falling. Gold production and sales via official markets is down to a third of “normal” output and all other sectors are also reporting serious difficulties. Power outages and low official exchange rates and tight foreign exchange controls within a highly inflationary environment is making life simply impossible for mining companies. Couple that to threats of nationalization and the fear by investors that their investment may be in jeopardy anyway, gives rise to many situations where shareholders will no longer bail out failing Zimbabwean mines.

In the past week the parallel market exchange rates have been moving so fast that dealers and businessmen have been unable to keep track of things. I heard of one deal done for a big company at Z$1 100 to US$1. That would represent 50 per cent devaluation in a week or so. Actual rates vary for different sorts of foreign exchange – the highest rates for so called “free funds” (meaning the most expensive) and funds from exporters and others where rates are lower. Never the less the markets were devaluing the Zimbabwe dollar by about 10 per cent per day last week with no sign of a bottom. Fuel prices rose sharply as a result to about Z$900 a litre – in many cases Z$1 000 a litre. Bus travel costs rose 1 third in the week.

So there is no relief in sight for the ordinary consumer – prices are rising faster that their incomes and money has very little value. Only those with hard income earnings are able to survive. Another twelve months of this and I do not know where we will be. One thing is sure – if this carries on for much longer, hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans will be forced to leave for greener pastures. Most will go to South Africa.

I picked up a Prison Warden today and gave him a lift to town – he said he was earning Z$29 000 before tax – probably a take home salary of US$40 a month. He could work as a farm laborer in South Africa for three times that – when he learned who I was he asked me if I could help him leave the country – I told him he must stay and help us change the country. He said he felt that was never going to happen until Mr. Mugabe goes or dies.

As for Mr. Mugabe – he was riding around the world in a Boeing 767 commandeered from our State airline – first speaking at the NAM summit in Cuba and then at the UN General Assembly. In both places he defended his role in the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy and claimed it was due to British and American sanctions. I worked under mandatory UN sanctions for 14 years and know what a real sanctions regime entails – what he was talking about are the travel restrictions imposed on him and his cronies by the EU and the USA and Australia – some personal discomfort when you like to buy your shirts at Harrods, but hardly sanctions.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 24th September 2006.