Heavy rains hit production.
Mr Katsvete farms in Guruve, part of the Zambezi River Valley area of northern Zimbabwe. Usually his crops suffer from lack of rainfall. "Usually we do not get enough rain for maize, but this year my maize crop was good. But because of all the rain, my cotton crop was ruined. Cotton does not like too much water," he said.
Ordinarily the main threat that looms over Zimbabwe's agricultural sector is the ever-present possibility of a drought. The semi-arid country averages a drought every three seasons. In the 1980s Zimbabwe experienced even more frequent shortages of rainfall and many experts warned that the El Nino factor was causing more frequent and more severe droughts.
But this year Zimbabwe's farmers suffered from an embarrassment of riches. From mid-November until mid-April the country had constant rain. At first the rains were welcomed by all as a blessing and a bumper harvest was predicted.
By January, however, it was clear that the rains were too heavy and that there was not enough sunshine to sustain healthy crops. And yet it continued to rain incessantly throughout February and March. There were weeks without sunny weather. Farmers watched with exasperation as their maize crop became waterlogged and stunted. Many fields became flooded and many farmers saw their entire crop washed away.
Cotton, prized by farmers because it can withstand a harsh drought, suffered badly from the excess rain. Soya beans, sorghum and groundnuts, as well as market vegetables like onions, tomatoes and beans were badly affected by the rains.
It was estimated that Zimbabwe received more than 140% of its average rainfall. The only corner of the country that did not get an over-abundance of rain was the second city, Bulawayo, which somehow remained dry. Bulawayo has already had to go back on water rationing to conserve its dwindling supplies.
Weather experts blamed Zimbabwe's excessive rainfall on the La Nina factor, the sister of El Nino which causes the reverse of a drought. Whatever the causes by May it was clear that the prolonged and excessive rains had reduced Zimbabwe's harvests.
The most important crop is maize and it is expected to be far short of the country's domestic needs. Although 20% more area was planted with maize this season than last, the actual yield is only expected to match last year's crop of 1.46m tonnes. Official estimates put the 1999 crop at 1.54m tonnes, but independent specialists say that the almost total failure of the late-planted maize will keep the crop below 1.5m tonnes and possibly below 1.4m tonnes. In any case, even the most optimistic prediction of 1.54m tonnes is below Zimbabwe's domestic requirements of 1.8m. It is estimated that Zimbabwe will need to import at least 500,000 tonnes of maize.
The cotton crop, an increasingly important export earner, is predicted to be 10% smaller than the previous year.
Horticulture remains robust
Zimbabwe's expanding horticulture sector, which exports cut flowers and specialty fruits and vegetables to European markets, offers the most promise for 1999. Because most of the horticultural produce is grown in greenhouses it did not suffer as much from too much rainfall. But the lack of sunshine did reduce growth and disrupt spraying of pesticides. Because February was so wet, those growing flowers were not able to cash in on exports to Europe for Valentine's Day.
Nevertheless the horticulture sector is forecasting growth of 20% to 30% for 1999. Gross exports of horticultural products are expected to earn US$148.3m, up from US$120.5m in 1998, according to the Horticultural Promotion Council. The estimated 1999 net earnings to the farmers is considerably less at US$82.65m, although up from US$67.06m in 1998. The reason for the large difference between the gross and the net earnings is the extremely high cost of air freight of the horticultural products to Europe from southern Africa. The cost of air freight from Zimbabwe is so high that some horticultural farmers find it is better for them to truck their perishable products under refrigeration to Johannesburg and to Lusaka and fly their products from there. Obviously something is wrong in the structure of air freight charges in Harare.
Despite this the value and volume of Zimbabwe's horticultural exports has continued to grow. Zimbabwe's floriculture producers exported a total of 14,800 tonnes of flowers in 1998 and they are expected to increase that to 18,000 tonnes in 1999. Exports of fruits and vegetables were 12,900 tonnes in 1998 and are forecast to reach 16,100 tonnes in 1999. Exports of citrus fruits was 40,000 tonnes in 1998 and is predicted to reach 50,000 tonnes in 1999. Clearly Zimbabwe's horticulture is still doing very well, but it is not enough to boost the entire agricultural sector.
Zimbabwe's economy is based on agriculture and when the rains are good, the GDP goes up. Agricultural production alone accounts for 20% of GDP but that figure underestimates how important crops are as the raw materials for industrial production. In addition the agricultural sector is the country's major export earner and a major consumer of manufactured goods. It is hard to overestimate the importance of agriculture to Zimbabwe's economy. The over heavy rains this year gave the already troubled economy an unexpected knock. Imports will be essential.