Zimbabwe, like other African countries, poured millions of dollars into the 2022/23 agriculture season, but officials and aid agencies warn that climate change threatens ambitions to increase grain production.

Maize is Zimbabwe’s main food crop, feeding millions of subsistence farmers, with interrupted production raising hunger and malnutrition concerns. With record high temperatures recorded in recent weeks, extreme heat has become the bane of agriculture activities in the country where an estimated 70 percent of maize is produced by smallholder farmers.

In some areas across the country, both rural and urban farmers have abandoned their fields with large swatches of agricultural land lying fallow.

From October, agriculture activity begins in earnest, but now into December, fields have been left to overgrown grass and acacia trees.

Farmers cite unbearable temperatures, the uncertainty of rainfall and high costs of inputs among other factors for staying away from their fields.

“I didn’t even make any effort to buy seed this year. It doesn’t seem like a good year to go to the fields,” said Nosizo Hadebe, a fifty-something year old city resident.

She is one of many here who each year diligently headed to local fields and turned the city into lush green maize fields.

This activity afforded residents the ability to feed themselves while others raised small incomes from selling what they considered excess harvest.

However, recent climate shifts have discouraged such activities, even though residents were happily growing their staple food. This occurred at a time when basics such as maize meal were beyond the reach of many.

“We have not seen this kind of heat in recent memory, and you cannot work the land under such conditions. You are looking to collapse from heat exhaustion in the fields,” Nosizo said.

She was expressing a common sentiment as there have been reports in the past of elderly residents eager to feed themselves collapsing and dying alone in their maize fields.

Urban community garden in Bulawayo supported by a borehole.

A look around the city of Bulawayo tells a story of neglected land where, instead of green grass marking the fields this time of the year, dry grass extends across long stretches of land, highlighting the extent of both high temperatures and delayed rainfall.

According to Zimbabwe’s climate ministry officials, this has adversely affected agriculture activity, effectively impacting the country’s food security efforts.

And for smallholders such as Nosizo, the reality of her circumstances means that this cropping season has been cancelled.

“It is evident that I am not the only one who didn’t head to the fields this year, and this means we cannot stock  our grain and other crops like we did previously even during a low rainfall season,” she said.

In the past, late planters have had to watch high temperatures scorch their crops. However, this year, even those smallholders who decided to plant early are already contending with crops that have been written off at the onset of what is considered the traditional planting season.

Amid such gloom, the World Food Programme (WFP) say this will lead to more people requiring food assistance when, for years, smallholder farmers have been touted as the answer to the continent’s food security efforts.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service says Zimbabwe experienced a 43 percent drop in maize production during the 2022/23 season, and with this year’s El Niño, production is expected to drop even further.

Yet, Zimbabwe is not the only country whose agricultural activities have been hard done by extreme weather. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has said Zimbabwe is among several southern African countries that face a drought due to El Niño, making the 2023/24 season one of the worst in recent memory.

Open air market in Bulawayo where vendors sell drought-resistant traditional crops.

In November this year, World Vision-Malawi said the effects of Cyclone Freddy, which devastated the country, were still being felt months later as it caused extreme soil erosion and degradation.

“This has not only affected the 2023 harvest but also has long-term consequences on the productivity of agricultural land. An online news outlet quoted Paul Turnbull, the World Food Programme’s (WFP) Country Director in Malawi, in November this year, stating, “Soil erosion diminishes soil fertility and can lead to decreased crop yields.”

Meanwhile, residents such as Nosizo pray that their fortunes will change, yet for climate ministry officials, the extreme weather could point to long-term disruptions of food production.