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ZIMBABWE: Food shortages bite as teachers strike for more pay


Photo: IRIN
Food when available is unaffordable
HARARE, 3 October 2007 (IRIN) - Shortages of basic commodities like bread and maizemeal, brought on by the world's highest inflation rate prompted Zimbabwean teachers unable to cope with escalating prices to go on strike this week, demanding a salary hike.

There is virtually no bread for sale, and the government's Agricultural Extension Services Department revealed in a recent report that the winter wheat harvest had only reached 144,870 metric tonnes (mt), against a national requirement of 400,000mt.

A combination of drought, lack of irrigation, seeds and other inputs, fuel and spare parts for machinery, resulted in a poor harvest from the main 2006/07 agricultural season, according to a recent report by the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).

In its Food Security Outlook, October 2007 to March 2008, FEWS NET said the harvest would only provide 45 percent of Zimbabwe's cereal needs, leaving an import requirement of over 610,000mt. The wheat crisis has forced millers and bakers to close down or downsize their operations.

John Madzimure, manager of a baking company in the capital, Harare, said dwindling flour supplies had forced his employer to cease operating in September. "Most of the time, workers would report for work but spend the day doing nothing. We started by retrenching but, again, losses kept on mounting, until it was decided we should close down."

Coping with the strike

Teachers, unable to keep up with inflation of around 6,500 percent on salaries that start from about US$6 a month, went on strike this week to demand that they be paid at least US$30 a month. According the independent Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, the cost of living for a family of six is about US$33 a month.

Final exams start next week, and the striking teachers have drawn the ire of students, who have been forced to run their own classes. "We feel that we are being sacrificed," commented a pupil. "Why didn't the teachers embark on their protest earlier?"

A 12-year-old student, taking a break from giving a mathematics "lecture", said, "As a prefect, I mobilised my classmates so that we could do what you see us doing right now [learning]." He said his parents had tried to dissuade him attending school because the teachers were on strike, but he had managed to convince them that "we are so close [to writing exams], and life should not stop because the teachers are away".

Food is scarce

Hopeful consumers queue for bread every morning, "but in the last seven days, the delivery has not been coming", said Jane Mutema, a Harare resident. She said rumours that bread would be delivered often tended to create stampedes, and a pregnant woman had been trampled on one occasion.

While basic goods can still be found on the parallel market at substantially higher cost, the FEWS NET report pointed out that these informal marketplaces are constantly disrupted by more frequent police raids. "Not only is the food crisis in urban areas one of access, it has now become an availability crisis as well." The exchange rate is currently Z$500,000 to US$1 on the parallel market.

''Not only is the food crisis in urban areas one of access, it has now become an availability crisis as well''
Unlike Harare, which is close to surplus supply areas, the urban populations of Bulawayo, Hwange and Tsholotsho, in Matabeleland North Province, and Kariba in Mashonaland West Province have been worst affected. Open market maize prices in these cities rose dramatically between June and August 2007, escalating by between 20 and 33 times, compared to a national average increase of just eight percent, according to FEWS NET.

Shortages of basic commodities are having the biggest impact on the poor, whose limited buying power forces them to make frequent purchases of smaller amounts of food and prevents them from buying in bulk when commodities become available, said FEWS NET.

People in need

FEWS NET expects about 4.1 million in urban and rural areas to be in need of food assistance between October 2007 and March 2008. The country's eight provinces are all expected to face a cereal deficit this year, with the traditionally grain-deficit Matabeleland and Masvingo - both hard hit by drought - being worst affected.

The government has managed to import 29 percent of its maize order from Malawi by August 2007, while humanitarian organisations have procured six percent of their order of 352,000mt of cereals. "With these food delivery mechanisms the country still faces a cereal gap of 111,135mt," which the FEWS NET report said was likely to filled, "especially since there are elections in early 2008."

The agriculture department and farmers have blamed constant power cuts, which affected irrigation, for the low wheat yields. Farmers complained that erratic power supplies had also damaged their electrical equipment.

"As new farmers, most of us are not insured ... besides, we had borrowed money from the banks to finance our activities, but now that our yields were poor, we are at a loss as to how we are going to repay the loans," said Tamutsa Chinhundu, who farms in Mazowe, about 40km northeast of Harare.

Other items have also been affected by the economic recession. Zimbabwe was once the second-largest tobacco exporter in the world after Brazil, but cigarettes have now disappeared from shops, and cost at least 10 times the government's fixed price on the thriving black market, the official daily newspaper, The Herald, reported this week.

Newspapers were also in short supply on Sunday, said The Herald, whose parent company has cut its print run as a result of paper shortages, while advertising revenue has shrunk because consumer goods are no longer available in stores.

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Theme(s): (IRIN) Economy, (IRIN) Food Security

[ENDS]

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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