Tsiga market in Harare’s most densely populated suburb should be bustling with customers buying maize meal, cooking oil and other staples.
Yet these days Tsiga, in the Zimbabwean capital’s Mbare district, is an increasingly empty and unhappy place. Traders say there are ever fewer buyers for goods that have surged in price, amid rising desperation over an economic crisis in the southern African nation that is threatening to morph into famine.
“Things are tough. People are saying it’s too hard to survive,” said Chengetai Takaindisa, a vendor, as she scrabbled for business. “[Customers] have to survive on one meal a day.”
Zimbabwe is already grappling with its worst economic crisis since the 2017 army coup that overthrew Robert Mugabe, the former dictator who died last month. Under his successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and his ruling Zanu-PF party, the population has suffered daily power cuts, long fuel queues and currency chaos.
Now the country is also facing serious food shortages. The UN World Food Programme warned in August that it risked “marching towards starvation” next year.
According to international estimates, 8.5m people — more than half the population — face uncertain food supplies by early 2020. Underlining the severity of the crisis, the number includes 3m people in cities, a contrast with previous food shortages, which mostly affected rural areas. Mr Mnangagwa’s government has begun buying grain abroad but it is in a race against time and has few financial resources.
Natural disasters are part of the explanation. Like other nations in the region, Zimbabwe was struck this year by two powerful cyclones that damaged farmland. A severe dry season, which peaked in August, compounded the damage and decimated the grain harvest.
But economic mismanagement has exacerbated the crisis, say analysts. “What makes it worse is that macroeconomic conditions are very bad at the moment,” said Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist at South Africa’s Agricultural Business Chamber.
Buying power has collapsed as the new local currency, the Zimbabwe dollar, has more than halved in value since it was introduced earlier this year. Annual inflation hit 289 per cent in August, according to economists’ calculations based on official data. Urban dwellers who buy food rather than grow it are especially affected.
“Prices go up each and every day,” Ms Takaindisa said. Her own daily takings of about Z$50 ($3.30) would barely cover the cost of two bottles of cooking oil.
Mr Mnangagwa has defended the introduction of the Zimbabwe dollar as necessary to fix imbalances in the economy. “Getting the economy working again from being dead will require time, patience, unity of purpose and perseverance,” he said in a state of the nation address last week.
But the legacy of Zanu-PF’s economic misrule could threaten the response to the crisis, observers say. Zimbabwe’s decayed rail networks and potholed roads in particular threaten to delay shipments of the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of foreign maize that will be needed to alleviate hunger.
“They need to start doing it now, because I worry about their infrastructure for handling large amounts of grain,” said Mr Sihlobo.
The crisis has thrown the spotlight on a state farm subsidy project known as “Command Agriculture” favoured by Mr Mnangagwa as a way to boost food security.
The project provides inputs such as fuel and fertiliser for farmers to meet production targets. But its performance has been poor, even accounting for this year’s natural disasters. Maize production in 2019 has averaged half a tonne per hectare compared with four tonnes in South Africa, which is also suffering poor weather.
Opposition politicians allege that Command Agriculture is in fact a front for corruption that benefits Mr Mnangagwa’s cronies and that there is little oversight over its funding.
Tendai Biti, a former finance minister and opposition lawmaker, has raised the concerns in parliamentary hearings probing Command Agriculture and said that the government had been “redefining corruption in Zimbabwe” through the programme.
The government denies wrongdoing but is facing questions over payments under the scheme to Sakunda, a fuel supplier owned by an ally of Mr Mnangagwa.
The IMF has privately raised concerns about payouts to the company. Sakunda’s accounts were recently frozen as a collapse in the currency intensified this month.
Sakunda is a partner in a Zimbabwean fuel distribution joint venture with Trafigura, the global commodities trader. Trafigura has said it has no connection to Command Agriculture or to Sakunda’s activities in Zimbabwe.
Mthuli Ncube, Zimbabwe’s finance minister, has announced changes to Command Agriculture’s funding that would give more prominence to loans from banks using state guarantees.
The corruption allegations surrounding the scheme have roused anger among those facing hunger. Command Agriculture “is not for ordinary Zimbabweans. It is very political,” said Tawanda, a former corporate procurement officer in Tsiga who quit his job as his salary collapsed in real terms and who now sells energy drinks to survive.
Zanu-PF rural strongholds were favoured with Command Agriculture inputs, Tawanda said. “Mostly it’s the bigwigs getting them. They sell them again to make profits.”
Others in Tsiga are simply focused on where the next meal will come from. “Something like bread is a thing of the past,” said Ephias Muchongwe, the head of a charity for orphans. “If you see bread in the supermarket, don’t ask the price.”