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Harare’s middle-class residents take up
urban farming to counter food shortages

A report by IRIN

10 January 2007: Urban faming, widely practiced by the poor and lower-income groups in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, is fast becoming de rigeur among the city's wealthy set. In affluent suburbs like Avondale and Mabelreign, maize and vegetable plots are sprouting up to counter expected food shortages brought on by an economic meltdown that has seen the inflation rate remaining well above 1,000 per cent, the highest in the world.

With unemployment estimated at above 80 per cent and basic foodstuffs becoming unaffordable even for those who have jobs, vacant lots are fast being turned into agricultural plots. Tatenda Muzenda, a domestic helper in Cotswold Hills, a middle-class suburb said: "I was so desperate to grow maize that I went and planted some maize seeds on the only available open field that I could identify, and that was next to the local police station."

Rather than being cautioned by the police, other residents, some of the officers from the adjacent station and their spouses, followed her lead and began planting crops for themselves. "The wages which I earn are not enough to help me fend for my children. I hope there will be enough rains to enable me to harvest a reasonable yield from the maize crop, part of which I can sell to earn an income for my family," Muzenda said.

In the past, police have uprooted crops being grown on vacant land in the city, but they now seem to be turning a blind eye as the capital goes green.

Harare's middle classes set aside time for urban farming on weekends. Every Saturday morning, Antonio Tshuma, a middle manager at a local commercial bank, parks his company car, a sports utility vehicle, beside a piece of land in the upmarket suburb of Borrowdale, where he tends his crop with the help of his two teenage daughters and his wife, whose immaculate manicured nails appear somewhat incongruous for such activities.

"We anticipate that this coming year might be difficult in terms of food availability. I want to make sure that we don't run out of food by producing as much maize as possible," Tshuma said. Although he can afford fertiliser - unlike many other urban farmers - the plot, covering about two-fifths of a hectare, contains only staple foods like maize and potatoes.

Once known as the breadbasket of southern Africa, Zimbabwe's farming system was disrupted in 2000, when President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF government embarked on a fast-track land redistribution exercise that sought to give land to thousands of blacks from impoverished communal areas by removing more than 4,000 commercial white farmers from their farms. The European Union and the United States subsequently imposed limited sanctions on top government officials for human rights violations, and Mugabe's disputed re-election in 2002.

Inadequate government support for the new farmers, such as supplying fertiliser, farming equipment and seeds, has had a severely negative impact on food production and has led to legislation that makes it an offence to move or trade in maize, effectively banning the transport of maize from rural areas to the cities.

"I grew up in the countryside and for years I have been collecting fresh maize and dry maize from my rural home. If the government now says it is illegal to carry maize from my rural home, then I will just have to produce some for myself and my family," Tshuma said.

Suppliers of agricultural inputs in Harare said that most of their clients were now urban farmers. "We have noticed that during the current cropping season most of the people buying maize seed and fertiliser are urban farmers, because they are buying in smaller quantities, an indication that they will only apply it on smaller pieces of land," said an employee at one supplier, who declined to be named.

Although the Harare Municipality officially frowns on urban farming, it also appears to be looking the other way. A recent survey of 15 urban farmers found that they had simply identified open pieces of land and started growing maize without consulting municipal officials, but so far no steps have been taken against them.

However, Harare municipality spokesman Percy Toriro said: "We will not allow people to plant maize anywhere they want. Residents should find out from their local district offices if there is any piece of land where they can practise urban farming. We want to ensure that the environment is well looked after."

The government has consistently denied any food shortages in the country. In late 2006 the state-owned Grain Marketing Board said Zimbabwe was expecting a surplus above its annual cereal requirement of about 1.9 million mt. However, independent estimates suggested that only 800,000mt of maize was produced, or less than half the country's annual requirement.

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