Hunger soars in Zimbabwe
Famine has raised its head in Zimbabwe again, as the numbers of people depending on aid to avoid starvation soared by 60% from last year to 1.6 million, according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
The agency said that one in five of the country's rural people were in need of famine relief. Grain production in the last year was 1 million tonnes, the worst since 2009, which at 800 000 tonnes was the worst year on record.
Zimbabwe had a reputation as "Africa's breadbasket" until 2000 when President Robert Mugabe launched his violent seizures of white-owned farms, forcing 1 500 white farmers of their land and displacing a million farm workers and their families.
The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have said that year marked the beginning of the collapse of one of Africa's most successful economies.
The latest figures were released after a lengthy study by UN agencies, the Zimbabwe government and non-governmental organisations involved in agriculture.
Already, the report said, rural residents of the country were feeling the effects of the food shortages, a pattern marked by empty domestic granaries and farmers selling their cattle to raise money to buy food.
The report blamed erratic rainfall, low supplies of seed and fertilizer, and bad farming practices.
At the height of the last rainy season, farmers unions slammed a supply arrangement set-up by government officials. Political figures in Mugabe's Zanu-PF party snapped up cheap fertiliser and seed and sold large quantities of it at inflated prices while peasant farmers waited helplessly.
During the current winter wheat season, promises of cheap supplies from the government also came to nothing, resulting in the lowest wheat crop forecast yet of 5 000 tonnes.
The WFP said it would rely on "regionally procured cereals" to make up the country's current shortfall.
Commentators have pointed out that the biggest regional producer is Zambia, where scores of white farmers moved and became large-scale producers again after being driven off their land in Zimbabwe in the last decade.