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Harare Scrambles For Foreign Currency As Food Crisis Deepens

Zimbabwe has again been hit by a severe shortage of maize while the government struggles to raise the foreign exchange it needs to import the national staple.

Finance Ministry and Reserve Bank officials are blaming Agriculture Minister Joseph Made for allegedly providing inaccurate figures on the 2006 maize harvest. Made had announced a harvest of around 1.3 million tonnes – but Grain Marketing Board Acting Executive Director Samuel Muvhuti said only 500,000 tonnes had come in.

Harare has announced entering contracts for the import of 565,000 tonnes of maize in 2007 from South Africa and Zambia. But official sources said dealers are demanding cash up front from Zimbabwe, which does not have a record of timely payment.

An informal survey showed that mealie meal deliveries have been erratic with Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare, and Masvingo feeling the worst pinch. The food crisis has been worsened by ongoing shortages of bread, sugar and cooking oil.

Humanitarian agencies said the government refused to let them conduct a survey of urban food supplies which might have provided an early warning of a crisis. The World Food Program has urged Harare to look to the food security of its population, and the International Monetary Fund recently urged Harare to prioritize food imports.

Economist James Jowa said, however, that Harare has limited capacity to import food, noting that the holidays have made foreign exchange flows even tighter than usual in the country. The end of the tobacco auction season also weighed on FX flows.

Economist Eric Bloch told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the food supply crisis is only likely to worsen as the lean season stretches out.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...