Credit shortages, subsidy hiccups and high energy costs have
dashed hopes of a rebound in wheat production in Zimbabwe, leaving a country
once known as the breadbasket of southern Africa facing another year of record
Zimbabwe's farmers will produce 20,000 tonnes of wheat in
2012-13, well below the 75,000 tonnes that the government initially targeted,
and historic harvest levels, US Department of Agriculture officials said.
"Wheat production is on a declining trend since 2001, when
Zimbabwe produced more than 300,000 tonnes," the USDA's South Africa bureau
said in a report.
"A number of constraints, such as unreliable power supplies
for irrigating the crop, dilapidated irrigation infrastructure, and late
payments by the [state-run] Grain Marketing Board, have contributed to the
declining trend in wheat production," the briefing said.
Thanks to "erratic rainfall", the harvest of corn, the
source of the food staple mealy meal, looks set to decline too, by more than one-third
to 900,000 tonnes.
Zimbabwe's wheat production should be more resilient - against
weather upsets, at least - as the crop is typically planted under irrigation,
in the April-to-May period,
However, the sowings window "passed with very little wheat-planting
activity" after fertilizer companies failed to release nutrients targets by a government-backed
$20m support programme.
This was "due to the government's failure to settle a $50m
debt dating back several seasons", the USDA said, adding the state also owes
money to "the majority of" farmers for wheat deliveries made in October.
As a further financial setback to farmers, loans for inputs
are only on offer for up to 90 days, "mainly due to the unavailability of
credit because of Zimbabwe's high country risk", while farmers report paying interest rates of 30% a year on loans.
The country's economic situation has in fact significantly
improved since the administration of President Robert Mugabe began power
sharing with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change was implemented
three years ago.
Inflation, which hit 500 trillion per cent in 2008, has
fallen to less than 5%, and the economy expanded by more than 7% a year.
Even growers who did get wheat into the ground have faced
high costs of irrigating it, estimated at $700-800 per hectare, on top of
charges of $350-500 for inputs and labour, according to the Zimbabwe Farmers
For output to be viable requires electricity prices of about
$0.03 per kilowatt hour, rather than the $0.14 per kilowatt hour farmers are
charged, the union said.
The USDA officials estimate Zimbabwe's wheat imports
reaching a record 250,000 tonnes in 2012-13 for a fourth successive season.
In the October-to-April period, Russia was the biggest exporter
to Zimbabwe, with 25,722 tonnes, with Argentina another major supplier.