Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Farmers Lose Out in Illicit Food Trade

Villagers trade their crops for scarce commodities which black-marketeers have bought up in the towns.
By Hativagone Mushonga
The crowd has been queuing outside a supermarket since five in the morning, after hearing there is sugar on the shelves. By ten in the morning, the day is growing hotter and the crowd is becoming increasingly restless.

To their surprise, they see a uniformed policeman emerge from the back door of the supermarket, carrying two large boxes filled with packs of sugar. For a few seconds there is stunned silence, and then the crowd pounces on the policeman. As they pull at his uniform and tear the boxes apart, he runs for his life.

The incident, which happened on May 19in the small farming town of Marondera, 70 kilometres east of Harare, reflects a growing mood of anger not only at the basic shortage of food, but also that when it does arrive, it is spirited away by black marketeers – often regime insiders or others with good connections – and resold at many times the price.

Many of the people queuing up in towns across Zimbabwe have come in from surrounding rural areas, where the local shops are bare with no deliveries for weeks on end.

It is unsurprising that the crowd in Marondera erupted – they would have been well aware that after hours of waiting, they might still get nothing. Meanwhile, the policeman and others like him would have cleared out the sugar either to sell it on the black market at five times the price they paid for it, or to barter it with rural peasants for their valuable maize crop.

People in rural areas have traditionally been more supportive of President Robert Mugabe than the urban population. Incidents like the one in Marondera may herald a growing militancy among these people because of the widespread perception that the illicit trade is in the hands of wealthy regime figures, who are getting rich from the misery of the majority.

“What is painful is that now, like piranhas, they are preying on the poor in the rural areas,” said a worker with one of the relief agencies that provide foreign food aid to Zimbabwe. “They take the basic commodities they have corruptly procured from supermarkets in the urban centres to the rural areas, and exchange these with either maize or soya beans, which they then sell to the Grain Marketing Board [GMB] at a huge profit.”

Although much of Zimbabwe experienced a drought over the growing season, some areas such as Mashonaland saw reasonable yields of maize and soya beans. That opened up opportunities for speculators to move in and procure the crop in exchange for the deficit goods they had bought up and stockpiled.

A visit to Chitomborwizi, 120 kilometres from Harare, revealed the extent of the practice. Villagers there are exchanging their hard-won maize with whatever basic commodities are offered, even though these come at a huge premium.

The skewed pricing means a bar of soap will buy 10 kilograms of shelled maize, while a 75 centilitre bottle of cooking oil - or one of the many two kilogram packs of sugar the Marondera policeman was carrying –are worth about 50 kg of maize.

The next stage is to turn the cereals into cash by selling it to the state purchasing agency, the GMB, once again at a huge mark-up. The GMB is desperate to buy whatever grain it can in a drought year.

“It is unfortunate that the villagers who worked so hard in a very difficult environment in a drought year are going to be the end losers,” IWPR was told by one “barter trader” or black marketeer who had come from Harare to buy crops in Chitomborwizi. “But what can I do if such an opportunity presents itself to me? As we say in our language, for a beast to be fat it must eat another beast.

“I am also trying to survive; I am also trying to feed my kids, cloth and educate them. So if I can make some extra dollars or even a huge profit – why not? My heart bleeds for the villagers, but the situation in the country is now like dog-eat-dog.”

Edmore Matongo, a local smallholder, said he no choice but to barter grain for food, although he was fortunate that he and his family had harvested about six tonnes of maize from their plot this season and were able to set aside one tonne to trade.

“We haven’t had sugar in a very long time. I have kids and they can’t remember how sugar tastes, and it is just not fair,” he said. “Remember how a long time ago on payday or after getting a bonus, fathers would buy special treats for the children? This harvest is like a bonus and I just want to treat my kids.”

The surplus also means access to basic products like soap. “It has been a while since we bought washing soap and I am now afraid that we might get sickness if we don’t do anything about it. It is important to eat and it is also equally important for us to be able to wash our clothes and bathe with soap,” said Matongo.

Logically, farmers like Matongo should be able to sell their grain to the GMB themselves and then spend the cash on goods as they see fit, rather than losing out in barter deals. But payment from the GMB is often late and comes in the form of cheques, which means a further delay as farmers have to travel to urban centres to obtain cash. Often, they simply cannot wait.

“We need ready cash so we can buy things as they become available. Also children need pocket money on a daily basis as they go to school,” said Matongo.

The farmer is well aware of the risk that the villagers get the balance wrong and trade too much of their crop.

“My worry is that if we are not careful, we will run out of maize before year end and begin begging again or waiting for food aid,” said Matongo.

More than 1.7 million people are receiving food aid in Zimbabwe, and it is estimated that about half of the country’s 13 million people will need food assistance this year.

The prolonged dry spells seen in most southern districts of Zimbabwe during the 2006-07 season have contributed to low yields, and the final production figure for maize, sorghum and millet is forecast to be insignificant.

Hativagone Mushonga is the pseudonym of a journalist in Zimbabwe.

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