Zimbabwe’s focus on wheat is set to produce the biggest crop ever

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) – Zimbabwe claims to be on the verge of its largest wheat crop in history, thanks in large part to efforts to overcome food supply problems caused by the war in Ukraine. But forest fires and impending rains are threatening the crops yet to be harvested.

Like other African countries, Zimbabwe has relied on imports for decades to compensate for low local production. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine resulted in global shortages and price increases, the country wanted to ensure “self-sufficiency at all costs,” Deputy Agriculture Minister Vangelis Haritatos told The Associated Press this week.

The country plans to harvest 380,000 tons of wheat, “which is 20,000 more than we as a country require,” Haritatos said. This is up from the approximately 300,000 tons produced last year.

“It is very likely that we will get the highest tonnage since 1962, when wheat was first introduced in Zimbabwe. Many countries are facing shortages, but the opposite is happening in Zimbabwe, “Haritatos said.

While other starving African countries are struggling with reduced grain imports due to the war in Ukraine, Zimbabwe is looking to use its projected grain surplus to build “a small strategic reserve” for the first time in its history. Agriculture Minister Anxious Masuka told reporters earlier this month. This would soften Zimbabwe from future shocks.

Masuka said Zimbabwe plans to increase grain production to around 420,000 tons next season, giving the country room to continue building its strategic reserve and become a grain exporter. Wheat is Zimbabwe’s most important strategic crop after maize.

African countries – which imported 44% of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine between 2018 and 2020, according to UN data – have been hit hard by the global shortage and rising cereal prices as a result. Of the war. The African Development Bank reported a 45% increase in grain prices on the continent.

African nations have been at the center of Western efforts to reopen Ukraine’s ports as the United States and allies have accused Russia of starving the world by denying exports from Ukraine, a major global exporter of wheat. African leaders also visited Russia to meet Putin on the issue.

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa in April described the war in Ukraine as a “wake-up call” for countries to grow their own food.

The response in Zimbabwe has been to empower local farmers, said Haritatos, deputy minister of agriculture.

This included engaging hundreds of small-scale rural farmers to start growing a crop traditionally reserved for large-scale commercial farmers, improving water supply infrastructure and distributing fertilizer to small-scale farmers, as well as increasing farm participation. private sector. The crop was first introduced to areas and farmers who had never grown wheat before.

Winter maize production has given way to wheat in many areas, with Zimbabwe relying on maize reserves to meet the demand for staple food. The land used for growing wheat has increased from 66,000 hectares (163,089 acres) in 2021 to 75,000 hectares this year and will grow to 100,000 hectares next season.

“Many countries discount small farmers because they are so small that individually they can’t make many changes,” Haritatos said. “But we organized them into groups and convinced them that it was possible. The quality of most of their crops is premium.”

He said the war in Ukraine made Zimbabwe understand that we shouldn’t rely on other countries for food we can grow ourselves.

However, Zimbabwean wheat is predominantly soft and must be mixed with imported durum wheat varieties to produce quality bread flour, according to the Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe. But the government ruled out imports amid the surplus, saying special permission would be needed.

The wheat harvest runs from October to December. However, both farmers and the government are concerned about the threat of violent forest fires and impending rains. They say the fires are more devastating than in previous years as climate change contributes to a prolonged dry season.

“Farmers are increasingly concerned about the time factor. It looks like the rains will soon be upon us. The grain should be out of the fields, “said Paul Zakariya, director of the Zimbabwe Farmers Union, which represents small-scale farmers.

Officials said the bushfires destroyed nearly $ 1 million worth of wheat in a single week in mid-October. Zimbabwe is in the midst of “fire season”, characterized by intense heat and strong windy, arid conditions that precede the rainy season.

The government says it has deployed more combines to help farmers speed up the harvest and is running fire prevention awareness programs. The country’s environmental management agency described forest fires as “one of the greatest environmental challenges of our time”.

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See AP’s full coverage on the food crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/food-crisis.

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