Food crisis in Zimbabwe: 2.2 million at risk. But where do the figures come from, and what do they mean?

The newspapers have been full of commentary on a looming food crisis in Zimbabwe. This has followed from the World Food Programme’s press release that 2.2 million people will be in need of food aid in the coming months. The Commercial Farmers Union has called it a ‘man-made crisis’, the direct result of the ‘chaotic’ land reform, and a decade of inappropriate policies.

I wanted to find out a bit more about where the 2.2 million figure came from. It’s a big number, and would mean a lot of food imports, way beyond the means of the Finance ministry. After a bit of digging I eventually found the figure, buried on page 122 of the ZimVac (Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee) livelihood assessment draft report for 2013.

Each year ZimVac, a coalition of NGOs, researchers and government agencies, undertake a major rural livelihood assessment, based on a sample of over 10,000 households across the country. The sample is drawn according to the latest ZIMSTAT ‘master sampling frame’, and the resulting data is aimed to be representative of the country as a whole. It’s an excellent and important initiative, but it has its deficiencies, as those involved readily admit.

The process for deciding the headline figure is complex. It involves assessing for each household all the cereal production, and then adding in income from employment, remittances, livestock sales, and other sources of income that could be used to buy food (p. 120). Assumptions on prices and market availability are used to translate income into food and in turn energy (p.121). The food security assessment is based on the household’s potential access to enough food from all sources, including purchases, to give each member a minimum of 2100 kilocalories per day in the consumption period 1 April 2013 to 31 March 2014 (p. 119). The total number in food deficit figure is then calculated as a sum of all of those experiencing any negative balance in the accounting period.

It’s a complicated procedure with lots of steps and plenty of assumptions. What the headline figure doesn’t indicate – although the report does, and the background documents for the ZimVac surveys over the years are quite transparent about this – is that the big number includes many people who may have a projected deficit for actually a very short period. Indeed, at the time of the survey in May 2013, over 80% of households surveyed had no hunger problems with only a very small proportion recording ‘severe hunger’ (p. 115). The report shows that there is a progression of food insecurity, with a peak of 2.2m people expected in January to March 2014 (p.124). 31% of the total (683,000 people) move into food deficit only in this crunch period before the next harvest; and some of whom may in fact be food insecure for only a very few days.

The 2.2 million figure is of course a good flag-waving number for the WFP to raise funds, and for the CFU to bash the government for the land reform (and even President Mugabe is now joining the critique of the ‘new farmers’), but the actual implications are more complex. Here are five reasons why we need to be cautious about the figures.

  • First, there’s geography: as the report shows the problems are concentrated in the dry south of the country which experienced the worst season in terms of rainfall and its distribution (p.125-6).
  • Second, there is almost certainly (as ever in surveys) an underreporting of income, and so purchasing power. Since in drought years, market purchases are essential for food entitlements, this is rather crucial.
  • Third, the assessment model allows for only limited sales of livestock to compensate for food deficits (households are assumed to retain a minimum of 5 goats and 3 cattle). Yet livestock is precisely the asset in the drier parts of the country that are used in times of drought to exchange for grain, and distress sales are common, and important for food security.
  • Fourth, remittances are especially important in drought-prone areas, yet the figures used in the model for this year are based on recall of last year’s receipts. Last year was of course a relatively good year for rural production, and so remittance flows inevitably dropped. But this year, you can be sure, they will increase in response to the shortfalls. For perfectly good reasons, the model does not account for this, but it’s another reason why we can expect things to be not as bad as predicted.
  • Finally, the assessment does not include early cropping – for example of green maize – which is often important in that crunch period before the ‘proper’ harvest.

For all these reasons and more, we should be cautious about the headline statistics, and understand in more detail what happens to whom and where.

One of the most striking figures in the report is the prediction that 98% of rural households nationally will hit a food deficit by next March if only cereal production and stocks were included (p. 123). Of course this includes those with no food production to speak of, such as farmworkers and other rurally-based non-farm households. But even discounting this group, this is striking, and does suggest a problem in agricultural production, as Charles Taffs of the CFU indicates. However, again we must be cautious in jumping to conclusions.

One big concern I have with recent national surveys is that they have been sampling according to old sample frames set before the land reform. This was the case for the 2011 PICES (Poverty, Income, Consumption and Expenditure Survey) study and the 2010-11 Demographic and Health Survey, both using the 2002 census sample frame. I have been assured that the ZimVac survey for 2013 used an updated sample, with ‘enumeration areas’ allocated proportional to population distribution derived from the 2012 census. If so, this would have included the significant populations, especially in A1 areas, who are – at least according to our data from Masvingo – producing more and doing better than their counterparts in the communal areas, where most the earlier rural samples are drawn from. And in our study areas on A1 sites we see between half and two-thirds of the households producing sufficient cereals for the year – not just 2%,

Following the 2012 census, ZIMSTAT is revising the national ‘master sample frame’, and hopefully from now on national surveys will be statistically more representative. Unfortunately it is still difficult to stratify the data according to land use types, and so distinguish between resettlement areas and others, so Taffs and co should probably hold off on their outright dismissal of land reform on the back of this data for now. As ever, it’s more complicated than it first seems.

That said, last season was unquestionably a worse one than experienced in the last few years, including in Masvingo. It also hit some higher potential areas hard, with a very unevenly spread rainfall. Despite improvements since 2009, input supply was again erratic and untimely last year. Also, maize area planted was again down, reflecting the shift from food crops to tobacco in some areas, perhaps especially in those food producing areas in the higher rainfall zones. This restructuring of the crop system is directly driven by incentives – tobacco, supported through contract arrangements – , is a much more profitable crop than maize, especially if marketed through the Grain Marketing Board. Over the last decade or more we have seen switches to small grains (although plantings were down this past year according to ZimVac), but these are still a small percentage of total crop output, and it remains maize that drives the food economy, although much of this circulates outside the formal channels, and so is difficult to capture in national statistics.

So what should we make of all this? Certainly there is going to be a problem of food deficits in the coming months. However, problems are going to be concentrated in a certain time period, and outside a few areas and for more vulnerable people, it’s not going to be as bad as the headline figure and the media commentary perhaps suggests. Imports will certainly be needed, and targeted food aid will be important, but other coping strategies will also come into play to offset the worst.

Indeed this seems to have been the pattern over many years now. There is a ritualised flurry of activity around this time of year, with the aid agencies calling for funds to support food aid, and those critical of land reform saying that this ‘proves’ that Zimbabwe has gone for food producer to ‘basket case’. Yet by the end of the season, the expected famine has not occurred and, although hardships unquestionably are faced, the scale and depth of the problem is not as expected. This can be explained due to both sampling and non-sampling errors inherent in the standard surveys; but also significantly because assessments have not got to grips with the new patterns of production (particularly in A1 areas) and marketing (mostly informal). This will require new, and better attuned, data collection techniques.

Unfortunately too often the emergency, humanitarian aid and disaster relief momentum overrides discussion of the developmental issues, and the scramble for food aid (and all the associated politicking) diverts attention and resources. As I have mentioned in this blog many times before, rural development challenges are many. They include the need to invest in irrigation to offset drought vulnerability, the importance of investment and reforms to ensure timely supply of inputs, a pricing and market policy to balance incentives between food and cash crops, a livestock policy that ensures such assets are secure and available in times of need, and, overall, more concerted support for the resettlement areas to ensure that they can indeed supply the nation with food.

Next week, I will continue this theme and look at the data on production and imports over time in a bit more detail. Since 2000 there is little doubt Zimbabwe is in a new era, and policy responses have to take this into account.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland


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31 responses to “Food crisis in Zimbabwe: 2.2 million at risk. But where do the figures come from, and what do they mean?

  1. Terry

    If people don’t actually starve to death in Zim it is because of the money sent home by people working in South Africa. You have no idea how huge this is and how it is the only thing between people and the wolf at the door. Why can’t you take the ZimVac assessment for what it is – an indication that things are seriously wrong int eh country?

    • As the ZimVac study shows, off farm income, including remittances, is essential for people’s livelihoods. This has been the case at least since the 1930s. Studies in the 1980s and 1990s showed that between 50% and 70% of total household income was made up of remittance income. This remains the case, includng in the A1 resettlements, as our Masvingo studies have shown. It is always important to take an overall livelihoods approach, as ZimVac does, and realise that farming is only one part of a larger livelihood portfolio. Rural livelihoods in Zimbabwe remain vulnerable, and the sort of rural development interventions noted in the blog are essential.

      • Terry

        I’m sorry but Zimbabweans were not working in South Africa in the 80’s and 90’s as they are today. In the 80’s the Apartheid government did not allow any black Zimbabweans to cross its borders and in the 90’s the asylum seeking programme had not been instigated yet. It is only since 2000 onwards that the huge numbers have poured over the border.. So the remittances you speak about must have been from local jobs.

      • There’s a long history of cross-border migration from Zimbabwe (formal and informal), but certainly migration patterns have changed. Remittances though, from local or foreign sources, remain crucial to livelihoods.

        See earlier blog discussion on migration:

  2. am

    It is worth noting the position on food aid in a communal area in region 4 since about 2005. First, more or less everybody, got food for about 5-6 months. Then the aid was only issued to a subset of the population based on various assessments by the ngo. The the ngo stopped coming at all. It seems this was because the funding for it dried up. It is also interesting that although a large communal area people got by without too many problems. Last year UNICEF introduced a food for work program lasting about 5 months. It stops at the end of October. This year the same UNICEF program has continued. Huge numbers are on this program.
    At the same time – since 2005 – in the adjacent fast track areas no food aid was distributed. It is still not being distributed and probably never will be. Two reasons are suggested. 1. The people don’t need it. Generally the state of food in the fast track is on a different level to communal. 2. The government would never allow it. It is not in their interest to have reports on food aid distribution on former commercial farms – from the BBC or anyone else. But it is not needed anyway.
    WFP and similar organisations can be regarded as a self-perpetuating industry and many reports have been written about that. To be more favourable, to supply the really needy they have to supply far more than are actually needy. Hence they quote millions as in need and not a smaller percentage. But from the side of the people they don’t mind that because they get it.
    I think, if it is possible, that factored in to the food production stats to be produced should be the food aid imports and areas of distribution over time. It is clear that this will point almost exclusively to communal not fast track. Sorry for assuming that before it is produced.

  3. Mphathisi Lunguza

    As a citizen of Matebeleland South , Gwanda in particular in Matshetsheni , my old man lost 40 herd last year and my brother lost 50 herd , these guys are the prime black cattle farmers who benefited from the land reform. There is a serious climate change induced drought and its in its 2nd year running. I am giving you the 2 as examples because they are in the A2 small holder fast track re-settlements . The situation is grim and severe for the rural people. I am responding to your article in the Chronicle today where you are concerned about statitstics and land reform politics. You are arguing that its just banter to get at Mugabe and Zanu-Pf for land reeform its very very sad my brother what you are doing our people in tha rural areas 2 seasons on in Matabeleland south have nothing to go on on a daily basis but you are blogging about their suffering and trading intellectaul jabs and research methods terminology abantu bakithi besifa ngendlala lezufuyo mzabo ( our people dying of hunger and their livestock) you know pretty well that HIV/AIDS has caused havoc in our communities if there is severe food shortages and people taking ARVs surving on a meal a day how many do you think have died through hunger/ARVS/HIV . What you must be doing is telling the world that there is indeed a crisis in Zimbabwe , Matabeleland south please assist not for you to react with articles that blame those that are highlighting our suffering . Where is your sense of duty to tha grandmothers of Matebeleland South? What have you done to assist our people besides the articles blaming and criticizing the those who are raising the alarm ?

    • The blog definitely doesn’t say there is no problem. There clearly is. The question is the extent – geographically and over time. You raise an important point about livestock, as drought deaths can have a huge and long-term impact (as happened from 1992). Investment in drought relief focused at the livestock sector, particularly in the dry south, is essential – and needs to come much earlier in the season than food relief.

    • Batanai

      Mphathisi, there is a great difference between what you are saying and what Dr Scoones is putting across. Only one thing is common, you are both talking about low food security for certain sections of the country.

      However, your major difference is on quantifying your data points. Dr Scoones is using quantitative analysis that casts doubt on the 2,2 million figure most media has been carrying. You, on the other hand are using subjective anecdotal information based on your relatives’ travails. I do not know how the misery experienced by your relatives should be interpreted as an accurate extrapolation to the 2,2 million figure under debate?

      Why do you think that your relatives’ suffering should therefore force everyone not to challenge the methodology and a given aggregate figure on food insecurity in Zimbabwe?
      If a different researcher had come up with the figure of 4 million instead of 2,2 million, how were you going to tell which of those figures was more accurate base on your 90 dead livestock? Would this not be a clear argument to support Dr. Scoones’ testing of methodology used here?

  4. Pingback: Food crisis in Zimbabwe - where do the figures come from, and what do they mean?

  5. William Doctor

    @ Zimbabweland:

    You say the issue ‘does suggest a problem in agricultural production … however, again we must be cautious in jumping to conclusions.’

    Well, you were happy to ‘smash myths’ regards you Masvingo study, extrapolating results from a small, and unrepresentative sample.

    If there’s smoke, there’s fire – and there is a problem in Zimbabwe regards agricultural production.

    • There are clearly many problems with agricultural production in Zimbabwe. But it’s important to debate what, where and why. This is one of the reasons for the blog.

      But please do read our book ( – just £11.25 on Amazon now, and copies are running out)! The discussion about how the Masvingo story fits within the broader picture was carefully presented.

      Since 2010 we fortunately have many more examples of detailed research, and the broad picture, with variations of course, shows similar patterns. See many similar blogs on these issues.

      For example: (on the diversity of studies across a range of areas) and (on case studies and ‘Masvingo exceptionalism’).

      • William Doctor

        @ ZimLand

        I haven’t read your book, and there is no need when I have access to the research through the Journal of Peasant Studies. Your study areas, or ‘clusters’ are focused on land that was principally under wildlife management prior to reform, as well as cattle ranching [Agro-ecological regions IV and V]. Any good scientific study attempts to sample representatively [and with adequate sample size – have you done a power analysis?], and so for your results to be representative, you will need to include areas that were previously under intensive cropping [Regions I and II]. I suspect that you will find these areas are relatively less productive.

        Regards debate, it seems to me that you always argue from the side of the ‘re-settled’, which is fair enough, but not scientific. Thankfully, some of those ‘orphans of empire’ [as you disparagingly refer to white Africans, like me] are very well educated [as scientists – but of the ‘hard’ sort], with connections in leading international institutions – and we will slowly find ways to provide balance to the debate. That’s what science does.

      • I do encourage you to read the book, and the other blogs I referred to in my earlier comment. I think this material addresses all the issues you raise. I definitely encourage further research, and look forward to seeing the results of your studies. Btw, the term ‘orphans of empire’ was a quote from Rory Pilossof, not from me.

  6. am

    A review of the statistics, to be truly empirical and scientific, will have to re-apply any new method used to the years before fast track. It may be this will show the pre fast track food situtation was even more secure than reported at that time. Hidden maize has always been hidden. To include it now and say things are not so bad is to miss the point. The scale of food shortages is to be seen by thousands of people here on food for work programs. Maybe it is all a con.

    The weakness is that fast track is defended on the basis of productivity and the food security situation in the country compared to the past. This is a losing argument. Food security will never be the same again without irrigation. It should only be defended on the basis of a redistribution of the land to the indigenous population though I don’t agree with the way it was done.

    • Yes, I definitely agree with your point about irrigation. Drought proofing is essential. The comparisons with the previous periods are important too. I will have a look at trends next week – and you are right the food economy has changed since 2000. My point though remains about sampling – unless we have national sample frames that properly capture what is happening within the new resettlements, we will not get a good picture. My concern is that there seems to be a mismatch between statistics and what happens on the ground. This is one of the factors that I put forward in the blog as potential explanations. But I don’t know for sure – the blog simply urges greater attention to the issues I highlight.

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  9. Zhwau

    Here is the problem I have, actors who did the ZimVAC survey had to do what they could with what ever resources they had both financial and human. Its easy for us to critise the process that that is pointless, a waste of energy and resource and I am sure someone is going to remind me that peer review of work done by others is the whole point of science. But I think thats just bull, if you really have some contribution to make then go and join the process and proving ideas to improve the process.
    Now If I read the report well the VAC its a platform that is open to all who are interested, with all the contact information to get in touch if you need to be useful.

    • The critique was aimed precisely at improving the quality of the assessment. As I say in the blog, ZimVAC does a great job, but methods have to change and be adapted as circumstances change. I have already had conversations with those involved since the publication of the blog with the aim of exploring how to improve the assessment approach. That is indeed the whole point of raising a debate; it can provide an opportunity to move forward. This is what I hope the blog helps with in a small way.

  10. MrK

    Here we go:

    (NEWZIMBABWE, BLOOMBERG) Hunger stalks thousands as drought, floods hit crops
    05/12/2013 00:00:00
    by Bloomberg

    POINTING at the scorching sun over his village in Matabeleland South province, Simon Sibaya blames drought, rising fertilizer prices and a lack of government support for leaving 2.2 million of his fellow citizens in need of food aid.

    “Even the goats are suffering,” Sibaya, 76, said as he sat under the eaves of his thatched mud hut. “We need food more than ever. This is a dry place always, but last season what few crops we had failed.”


  11. am

    One of the problems with the WFP report is that it seems understated speaking of the need next year in the pre-harvest period.
    Here there are food for work programs everywhere with the whole community more or less on them and that since July 2013. The man-hours involved must be in the millions but none of it is related to food production.
    Many are still on the program and not going to the fields even though there has been a lot of rain in the area since the end of October.
    Also people are getting used to this way of life. Because the ploughing will be late and the crop will probably fail as a result the cycle will continue. How it can be stopped is not that obvious. At the same time as this some have ploughed massively and only need rain to the end of January to get a good crop. They then cannot sell their crop because those on the Food for work program will get enough to last them till the 2014 food for work program.
    The Development experts need to examine this problem and come up with appropriate solutions because the future is bleak. Many of the young think food is from the ngo not the field.

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  16. MrK

    Here we go again:

    Hunger to hit 1.5mln Zimbabweans, says World Food Programme
    25/08/2015 00:00:00
    by Reuters

    At least this year it’s 1.5 million instead of 2.2 million. Maybe they are writing down their claims over time.

    • Certainly the food security situation in some parts of the country is serious, but still the data doesn’t disaggregate between resettlement areas and is others. This makes a more nuanced assessment difficult. To their credit WFP have been more qualified in their press releases this year, indicating that this number is for those who are potentially food insecure the last period pre-harvest. Let’s hope the prognosis is not so bad, and that as before unaccounted for food production and availability through the market will offset the most serious hardships.

  17. MrK

    Here we go again, I guess it’s that time of year:

    (NEWZIMBABWE) Declare hunger a national disaster, opposition urges government
    20/11/2015 00:00:00
    by Staff Reporter

  18. MrK

    This time it’s 3.5 million. The Tendai Biti faction of the MDC is now claiming that about a quarter of the population needs food aid? I think it is pretty clear that these charges are completely political.,+Biti+party/news.aspx

    (NEWZIMBABWE) Declare hunger a national disaster, opposition urges government
    20/11/2015 00:00:00
    by Staff Reporter

    “Over 3.5 million Zimbabweans are now in need of food aid due to the severe drought effects the country is going through and the lack of preparedness …

    “ … and focus on the part of the government of the day to handle this crisis including its failure to support farmers,” PDP spokesperson Jacob Mafume said. “

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