Agriculture authorities have against their own advice, set small-scale maize growers in Wedza firmly on the path to hunger following the distribution of seed that has a potentially high risk of failure under current drought conditions.
In short, farmers have received the wrong seed for a drought year from those in the know, those that have been at the fore-front promoting early maturing varieties and drought-tolerant small grains, as key tools for coping with changing climates.
Government has over the years provided free inputs to smallholder grain farmers, efforts aimed at boosting household and national food production, but results have been less pleasing due to several factors, including climate change.
This year, more than 1,5 million Zimbabweans are facing hunger, with 850 000 in need of urgent food aid, according to the World Food Programme (WFP), as an El Nino-induced drought is expected to decimate harvests.
Across southern Africa, some 30 million people will likely go hungry this year, aid agencies say.
El Nino occurs when sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean warm up, shifting rainfall patterns worldwide. Countries like Zimbabwe usually experience drought during El Nino years.
In December, Mr Edward Kutsonga, 55, of Chemhanza Village near Wedza growth point took home his share of the public disbursements – 10kg maize seed and 50kg compound D fertiliser – hoping that will help feed his small family, a wife and son.
But the seed was not the kind anyone would plant at a time of drought. Mbizi SC 513 is a hybrid variety manufactured by local seed giant, Seed Co Ltd, and takes over four months before maturity (or up to 130 days), with lots of rainfall, but is disease resistant, says agriculture economist, Mr Brighton Chijoko.
There was little option for a desperate Mr Kutsonga who failed to produce enough food on his one hectare plot during the previous harvest due to poor rainfall.
“After receiving the seed (Mbizi SC 513) we planted on November 25 last year, but since Christmas we have had no rain, the crop, now knee level, is beginning to suffer,” Mr Kutsonga lamented.
“If rains do not come in the next week or so, it will be a disaster, the crop will fail. This type of seed needs lots of water and takes very long to mature.
“If I had the money I could have bought seed that matures early. Now, we do not know, we just wait and see.”
Erratic rainfall, misleading
As El Nino takes its toll, causing devastating rainfall shortages across southern Africa, local meteorologists have declared the 2015/16 cropping season a drought season.
In its usual ambiguous parlance, the Meteorological Services Department (MSD) says the country will this summer receive “normal to below normal rainfall,” spelling doom for smallholder farmers like Mr Kutsonga whose crops are grown under rain-fed conditions, just like 90 percent of Zimbabwe’s farmers.
Zimbabwe’s main rain season occurs between December and February, but is this year not expected to last the full three months.
Instead, it has been replaced by scotching heat waves that have broken 60-year temperature records.
Mr Tich Zinyemba, head of public weather services at the MSD, told The Chronicle last week that January will be “dry and hot” with little chance of rainfall activity.
But people are losing faith in predictions from the Meteorological Services Department, even Government.
“We have been encouraging farmers to plant seeds that mature early, at least within three months since projections were that we were going to have good rains for three months, but as it is now we do not even have those rains properly,” said Mr Davis Mharapira, Deputy Agriculture Minister, by telephone.
The distribution of unsuitable seed in a drought year may have resulted from poor reconciliation during bulk purchases, he said, and this seems to be common place.
During a national tour last year, Mr Mharapira said he noticed farmers in Shurugwi – an ecological Region 5 area, the harshest low rainfall zone in the whole of Zimbabwe – had received 700 series maize seed varieties.
This specific series is long on maturity – nearly 5 months – a good example of what not to plant in dry areas during droughts or at any other time, and requires vast amounts of water.
With under 450mm of precipitation each year in Region 5, Shurugwi was never going to sustain such a variety, much less in a drought year.
“Early on the season we first disbursed seed that matures after more than 90 days,” said Mr Mharapira.
“However, there could have been a mistake. I realised in Shurugwi, which is in Region 5, the 700 series was distributed.
“Usually, seed houses, which will be selling their seed, end up releasing everything that they have, instead of disbursing the right seed for the correct regions. Government would never encourage the growing of late maturity seeds at a time of harsh climates.”
Wedza is generally a good rainfall area, with precipitation averaging between 550 and 700mm annually. In any normal season, Mbizi SC 513 would be the ideal seed for Wedza.
But this is not a normal season. There is no telling whether Mr Kutsonga will have a normal harvest.
The Wedza district agriculture extension officer, Mr Vengesayi refused to comment saying the issue was “sensitive” and needed clearance from his superiors.