Zimbabwe’s agriculture commodities market is experiencing mixed fortunes as the country struggles with ensuring basic products are not only available but affordable amid currency volatility. The country’s open air vegetable markets have in recent years become the pulse of the performance of the agriculture sector, proving insights into both commodity availability and pricing.

It is in these open-air markets where virtually every agriculture produce is found all year round, but in recent years with diminished commercial agriculture production, it has become normal to expect shortages of some commodities.

While the country once boasted a thriving winter cropping season, consumers have found themselves having to chase commodities that range from onions and tomatoes to potatoes, raising concerns about the long-term production of staple agriculture commodities. In a country known for regular shortages of basic commodities such as mealie meal, the shortage of green produce has come as a surprise to many consumers.

“I do not think it is normal to have a shortage of onions or tomatoes,” said Shyelt Guti, a Bulawayo housewife. “But it has become a fact of life,” she said, expressing what has become popular sentiment here. And the shortages have meant that when available, basics such as tomatoes and onions are more than double their regular price, not exactly as a result of the country’s volatile inflationary pressures, but shortages from the farmgate.

Authorities issued a public statement assuring consumers that there was no shortage of sugar in the country.

Produce such as potatoes have also hit the skids, with supermarkets that usually stock the tubers running on empty. As part of efforts to address these challenges, the Zimbabwe Mercantile Exchange (ZMX) was set up in 2021 to enable speedier availability of agriculture commodities in local markets. However, farmers expected to use the exchange have largely stayed away, with ZMX officials noting that this is because most farmers are under contract and cannot sell directly to willing buyers in the agriculture commodities exchange.

Contract farming has proven controversial in Zimbabwe with some farmers accused of breaching their contracts and selling to private buyers, resulting in market shortages. According to ZMX, the idea is to attract self-financed farmers, but in a country where basic commodities find their way into the market through unofficial channels, this agri-business model has been a hard sell. The Grain Marketing Board has tried the same model of persuading farmers to sell to the parastatal to boost national food stocks, but low prices have meant producers chase higher prices from private buyers.

The Zimbabwe Mercantile Exchange also seeks to promote cross-border trade of agriculture commodities, but those ambitions remain tall as producers must meet international standards to pass muster. For small scale green produce farmers such as Nathan Bhebhe who grows staples such as tomatoes, onions, cabbages and chomolia (a type of kale), the shortage of these staples is both a boon and a cause for concern.

“There is growing demand for vegetables as many farmers are failing to service their infrastructure,” Nathan said.

“Seasonal vegetables have also suffered because of hostile weather. There has been too much heat for vegetables to thrive, and from what I have seen some farmers have simply given up,” he said. Despite the apparent innovations to promote farmer produce such as ZMX, there has been little on the ground in terms of interventions to ensure consistent farm to market delivery.

Consumers have found themselves having to chase commodities that range from onions and tomatoes to potatoes.

The Zimbabwe Farmers Union (ZFU) has raised concerns about the lack of adequate financing for farmers to make their own decisions that will encourage production and participation in the commodities market. For Bhebhe and others who finance their green gardens from their own pockets, shortages of commodities have not presented an opportunity to increase production.

“We have the land, but we obviously need financial support to supply the market. There is never a time when there is no demand for tomatoes or onions,” he said.

Consumers have raised concerns about a shortage of vegetables that seem to have joined the list of other hard-to-find basic commodities. Recently, the authorities issued a public statement assuring consumers that there was no shortage of sugar in the country. It has become common in Zimbabwe that once a commodity is rumoured to be in short supply, consumers hoard the commodity, creating what government says are “artificial shortages”.

In the agriculture commodities however, perishables are difficult to hoard, and once shortages emerge due to various reasons, authorities cannot blame it on hoarding.