Alternatives to starvation in Zimbabwe

An effective response to imminent starvation in Zimbabwe requires listening to the country's farmers.

Mtoko, Zimbabwe. Image credit Milton Grant for UN Photo via Flickr CC.

“Once the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe [is] now on brink of man-made starvation.” Almost everyone might agree with this “man-made” statement if Hilal Elver, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the right to food, was speaking of both climate change and domestic policies.

Zimbabwe shares with the rest of the continent of Africa the status of victim in the climate crisis; meteorologists document its severely decreasing and variable rain patterns. But Elver was referring only to domestic agricultural policies—for example, meager credit and unreliable extension services—that insufficiently support farmers to attain national food security. Rampant inflation, a result of financial policy, also exacerbates the hunger.

Zimbabwe needs food aid this year, the third year of drought. Malnutrition is rising, the consequences of which are always the worst for young children. The UN World Food Program is not sounding a false alarm, but there is a backstory to the conclusion that “man-made starvation” of Zimbabweans is imminent.

Smallholder Zimbabwean farmers are addressing both “man-made” policies of climate change and insufficient support services, but in ways which development agencies do not recognize. First, the conclusion that starvation is imminent comes from the fact that international agencies count mainly cereals as “food,” and not all of them. The UN World Food Program includes barley, maize, oats, rice, wheat and sorghum as cereals. All, except sorghum, require much more water than climate change is raining on Zimbabwe. Rarely are millets counted. Both millet and sorghum, indigenous to the African continent, are semi-arid crops, more nutritious than maize or wheat.

For more than two decades now, Zimbabwean smallholder farmers have been switching from white maize, which became a staple during colonial times, to sorghum and millets. They also grow tubers—sweet potatoes, potatoes, cassava in the low veld—as staples, all of which require much less water. Although it is accurate to report that white bread is not affordable to the majority (high inflation making prices of imported wheat prohibitive), Zimbabweans respond by eating slices of more nutritious sweet potatoes, often grown in an urban garden.

Another factor not recognized is that smallholder farmers do not send all their produce to the formal commercial market; what is sold or consumed locally is absent from summary statistics. They are not “subsistence” farmers but, rather, exchange their produce locally. For example, more than 80 percent of the seed used by smallholder farmers is shared within their community seed banks or exchanged at local markets, and they regularly buy only hybrid maize seed in commercial markets. A recently formed farmers’ seed cooperative hopes to challenge even that practice by marketing larger quantities of locally adapted maize seed.

Zimbabwean farmers are not just resisting turning their indigenous knowledge, seeds, and diverse production over to the corporate global market; they are offering alternatives. As analyzed previously on this website, they are among growing numbers of farmers across the continent engaging in agroecological production of food. What does this mean?

Women farmers demonstrate the practices of agroecology well. They grow 20-25 different crop varieties on small plots (<2.5 acres). Three or four millet varieties might be in different areas of the plot, planted at different times. They inter-crop millets and sorghum with tubers and vegetables. The women know which plant deters what pest, what corner of the field might get a bit more water. Varieties of beans grow up the stalks of tall cereals; peanuts survive in the sandy, driest corner. In a bad drought year like this one, not everything will grow, but not every crop will fail.

If successful farming were counted not just by yield per acre, but also included the measure of “nutrition density” per acre, we might begin to evaluate high-tech agribusiness production of one specie of one crop (monoculture) as much less “successful.” Smallholder farmers around the globe are recognizing “nutrition density,” resulting from high diversity of crops in one field, as a successful way to fight the harsh weather vagaries of climate change. Further, one field of biodiverse crops delivers more nutrition to local supper tables than a monoculture field.

Those who question dominant development policies might also question whether reports of “starvation” will likely become tools for advancing high tech, large scale commercial agriculture that subsumes, often destroys, smallholder food production. Such responses could exacerbate current inequities.

African smallholder farmers across the continent need international and national policy support. However, an effective response requires listening to those farmers and understanding how they are organizing and innovating to increase nutritious production in this time of climate change.

Further Reading