Since the beginning of the year, numerous reports confirmed that 2024 is a drought year for Zimbabwe after the failure of large swathes of crops across the country.

This was weeks before an official drought declaration was made by the President last month, bringing to focus the country’s agriculture statistics dilemma where government routinely tweaks the numbers to paint a positive food security outlook.

Smallholder and subsistence farmers who by the month of May would have been enjoying maize, groundnuts, sweet potatoes and other crops they grow themselves have been left counting their losses and facing the reality of hunger.

As the half-year mark approaches, there appears to be little hope for the winter crop expected to add to the country’s food reserves

Climate researchers have warned that there are no signs that the 2024/25 cropping season will be any better.

The Grain Marketing Board (GMB) has for years complained that even during normal to above rainfall, smallholders withhold their maize citing poor prices offered by the state-owned enterprise.

Despite this, government has continued to insist that the country has “excess” grain. It has however never been clear where that excess grain comes from.

Analysts say the devastation of the drought has been worsened by lack of government transparency, with for example the Ministry of Agriculture for months painting a hopeful picture while the Ministry of Economy has declared that it is revising downwards economic growth projections because of the drought.

Last month, days before the official drought declaration by the President, Finance, Economic Development and Investment Promotion Minister, Mthuli Ncube, conceded the “negative impact of El Niño, and naturally it is affecting our agricultural output where we are expecting negative economic growth from agriculture”.

Zimbabwe has historically banked on agriculture performance to drive gross domestic product growth, but the authorities have in recent years been at odds with independent experts who have cast doubt on upbeat economic figures released by the treasury.

While the Finance Minister declared that government would ensure no one goes hungry because of El Niño, agencies such as the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) have warned that the inability to produce their own food will lead to millions facing starvation.

A FEWSNET assessment recently warned that food prices will remain beyond the reach of many as a direct result of El Niño.

“But clearly we have been impacted by El Niño and as government, we are always ready to respond to make sure that citizens are cushioned against the possibilities of hunger and ensure that no one goes hungry,” Minister Mthuli told state media.

The country has routinely shown lack of capacity to feed itself despite regular assurances that it has enough grain reserves, and FEWSNET warned that runaway prices of basic commodities will drive many into hunger.

In 2021, the World Food Programme (WFP) reported that poor agriculture performance driven by COVID-19 had left two million four hundred urban residents failing to access basic food commodities.

The country is yet to recover from those COVID-19 disruptions, and food needs in the aftermath of El Niño have only worsened despite the Agriculture Ministry declaring last year that the country had produced enough grain from the previous cropping season.

Amid such disparities, the Ministry of Agriculture has touted the cropping of crop varieties outside grains such as maize and wheat as the panacea that will drive economic growth.

But such appeals have found few takers as smallholder farmers who grow the bulk of the country’s grain still stick to maize, the country’s staple, and cash crops such as tobacco and cotton.

While Zimbabwe has also received grain donations from abroad, food security experts and humanitarian agencies have said this has never been enough to cushion millions from other macro-economic pressures that have reflected the unreliable official statistics regarding the food security situation.

Such forecasts will have a bearing on the country’s food production and food security statistics which have been contentious for years, casting further doubt on whether smallholders will continue to anchor the self-sufficiency ambitions of the agriculture sector.

“We have successfully climate-proofed and invested in irrigation, and that is why we are now wheat self-sufficient, but we need to do more in terms of maize where we will have a deficit,” Minister Mthuli said, exposing the discrepancy between economic updates issued by cabinet ministers.

“When it comes to investment in irrigation, again we are going to accelerate investments now that we have the water bodies. We have to impound water. So, it is an ongoing programme to complete dams under construction,” the Minister added, again revealing the country’s deficits in putting in place long-term bulwarks to ensure agriculture is cushioned against climate induced water-stress.