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Planted area likely remains below normal despite good rainfall in December

  • Food Security Outlook Update
  • Zimbabwe
  • December 2023
Planted area likely remains below normal despite good rainfall in December

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  • Key Messages
  • Current Situation
  • Seasonal Calendar for a Typical Year
  • Updated Assumptions
  • Projected Outlook through May 2024
  • Most likely food security outcomes and areas receiving significant levels of humanitarian assistance
  • Key Messages
    • As the 2023/24 lean season peak nears, the number of households engaging in coping strategies indicative of Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes is increasing mainly in typical deficit-producing areas. Most poor households' own-produced food stocks have depleted, and access to income for market purchases is constrained. However, Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes are expected to persist in the productive surplus-producing resettlement areas in the north through the 2024 harvest due to the availability of own-produced 2023 stocks and income from some crop sales and casual labor. The communal parts of the surplus-producing areas will likely continue to experience Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes due to limited household stocks and access to income for market purchases. 
    • Record dryness and high temperatures in November and early December resulted in many farmers delaying planting their fields this season. However, widespread rainfall from mid to late December resulted in increased planting, but the area planted to crops is likely still below normal across most areas as the planting window progressively narrows. The rainfall recorded from mid to the end of December has improved the critical water and pasture conditions that had led to some livestock deaths in the worst affected areas in the south. 
    • The cost of living in ZWL terms is expected to continue to increase throughout the outlook period, mainly driven by rising official and parallel market exchange rates. USD price increases for some goods and services are also likely, driven partly by anticipated production and transport cost increases. Due to relatively lower prices than formal retail shops, the informal retail sector will likely remain the preferred source of basic food and other commodities, especially among poor households. Panic buying of staple grain will trigger significantly above-normal price spikes through the next harvests.   
    • The anticipated El Niño-induced below-normal rainfall from January through March is expected to negatively impact seasonal agricultural labor opportunities, particularly in semi-arid areas. Current improvements in pasture and water conditions are expected to be short-lived if prolonged dry spells are recorded in January and February and result in poor livestock (mainly cattle) body conditions. Poor households, especially in southern and western areas, are likely to increase their reliance on remittances from family members in South Africa, but the high cost of living will likely impact the amount received. Some households will increasingly seek to earn income from petty trade and informal mining to earn income for food purchases and rely on humanitarian assistance, reportedly to begin being distributed in January 2024 in targeted areas. 

    Current Situation

    November and the first half of December were marked by very dry and hot conditions across Zimbabwe, resulting in the driest start of the rainy season compared to the 40-year historical record across much of Matabeleland North and Matabeleland South, along with localized areas of the Masvingo, Midlands, Manicaland, and Mashonaland East Provinces (Figure 1). The dry conditions negatively impacted planting rates across the country, with the area planted during this time significantly below normal for most food and cash crops. 

    Figure 1

    Ranking of total rainfall received during the Oct. 1 - Dec. 10, 2023, period compared to the same period of time on the 40-year historical record.
    Record dry conditions in southern Zimbabwe from October 1 to December 10, 2023.

    Source: Climate Hazards Center

    However, most farmers began planting following significant rainfall across the country in the second half of December (Figure 2), though planting rates remain below normal across most areas. Farmers are being encouraged to plant short-season varieties given the anticipated short-growing season. The government has extended the mandatory dates for destroying tobacco seedling beds from December 31, 2023 to January 15, 2024 to allow tobacco farmers sufficient time to complete planting. Relatedly, the Ministry of Agriculture is encouraging farmers to increase scouting for pests since the late planting coincides with the breeding season for the African and Fall Armyworms, which are a high risk to the young crops. Market purchases of crop inputs (including seed and fertilizers) remain low partly due to high prices and farmers' wariness over the season prospects. Government crop input distributions are reportedly continuing across the country. 

    Figure 2

    Cumulative rainfall during the Oct. 1- Dec. 25, 2023, period shown as a percent of the 40-year average
    Good rainfall in December erased most deficits, resulting in average to above-average rainfall across much of the country.

    Source: Climate Hazards Center

    December rapidly reduced water sources, impacting household water access, especially across typically semi-arid southern, eastern, western, and extreme northern parts of the country. The lack of recharge during this time resulted in streams and rivers remaining dry, with dry riverbed sand-scooping for water ongoing in parts of the country. The decline in water tables also negatively impacted borehole yields. In these semi-arid areas, most dam and other reservoir levels were quickly declining or had dried up in the absence of seasonal inflows. A prominent case is that of Ngwana Dam in Bulilima District in Matebeleland South Province which reportedly dried up for the first time since 1987. The other districts in the province that were also critically affected included Gwanda, Beitbridge, and Matobo. Relatedly, authorities in Bulawayo, the second largest city, had extended the "water-shedding" schedule to 120 hours per week to residents as water levels in the main supply dams had rapidly declined. However, the heavy and widespread rainfall in the second half of December improved water availability and access across most parts of the country, with the Zimbabwe National Water Authority reporting improved dam levels across most areas due to increased inflows. 

    The dry conditions before the rains in mid-December also resulted in media reports and pictures of cattle stuck in the mud searching for water in parts of Matabeleland South Province, highlighting the rapid deterioration of water access. Similarly, pasture conditions, including relief grazing areas, were declining across the country before the rains in mid-December. Between October and early December, over 7,000 cattle reportedly died across Zimbabwe due to the dry conditions, of which over 4,400 cattle deaths were reported in Matabeleland South Province, with more than 1,000 cattle deaths reported in Bulilima District alone. In most affected areas, especially in the south, households face challenges accessing supplementary livestock feeds due to the absence of crop stovers and grasses for making hay and the high cost of commercial feeds. Veterinary services and drugs are also too expensive for most poor households to purchase, which contributed to livestock deaths as cattle became more vulnerable to illness as their body conditions deteriorated. Before the good rainfall from mid-to-late December, households in affected areas were beginning to sell their poor-condition cattle to mitigate future losses or buy commercial feeds for the remaining livestock. This rush to sell resulted in cattle prices dropping, resulting in some enterprising traders and farmers buying the cattle from desperate households for fattening purposes, after which the cattle could be sold at a higher profit. The government started drilling boreholes and is reportedly distributing subsidized hay bales in affected areas to mitigate further cattle deaths. Critical water challenges, exacerbated by the high temperatures, also affected wildlife, with over 110 reported elephant deaths in the Hwange National Park between September and November. However, the heavy and widespread rainfall in the second half of December is slowly rejuvenating pastures and helping stabilize livestock body conditions.  

    Official and parallel market exchange rates continue to increase, chiefly driving ZWL price hikes on the market. As of the end of December, the formal exchange rate was around 6,000 ZWL per USD, against the parallel market rate of around 10,000 ZWL per USD. In December, ZIMSTAT reported that headline and monthly inflation rose to 26.5 percent and 4.7 percent, respectively. The cost of living, as measured by the ZIMSTAT food poverty datum line and total consumption poverty line for December, has also increased by about 22 percent since November. Significant ZWL and USD price increases were recorded for most basic food commodities in December, including maize grain, maize meal, cooking oil, sugar, and vegetables, while above-normal price increases were recorded for non-food items, including services such as transport fares and rentals.  

    In the 2024 national budget presentation in early December, the government reintroduced duties on selected basic food and other commodities that had been exempted from import duty in April 2023 when the government tried to stem high basic commodity prices and shortages. Additional taxes in the 2024 budget statement are expected to drive price increases for food and other non-food commodities in 2024. The government also regulated that only registered and tax-compliant informal sector retailers can procure goods from producers and wholesalers. Due to lower prices than formal retailers, the informal sector has increasingly become the preferred source of food and non-food items, especially for poor households. 

    The demand for grain on the market is increasing in deficit-producing areas as own-produced stocks are depleted. However, market availability of staple grains is reducing, with most markets in deficit areas without grain as farmers with surplus stocks speculatively withhold supplies. There is also increasing panic buying of staple grain as some households across the country seek to store grain, given increasing concern about the availability of staple grain for the current and upcoming marketing year due to El Niño-induced impacts. This is contributing to an earlier-than-expected decline in market supplies. Maize USD prices increased between 75 and 100 percent between November and mid-December, with a 17.5 kg bucket of maize selling for up to 12 USD in some markets. Maize meal is becoming the main cereal purchased by poor households in most areas, and prices have increased by 20 to 50 percent in USD terms during the same period. Maize meal supplies in some markets are also reducing as demand increases. 

    Seasonal agricultural casual labor availability and self-employment opportunities remained significantly below normal or unavailable across most communities due to the dryness and liquidity challenges among better-off households; the situation has improved somewhat in some areas with the mid to end of December rains. Livestock sale incomes are also below normal due to poor liquidity and demand, poor body conditions (mainly for cattle), and forced sales in semi-arid areas. Households continue increasing their dependence on petty trade to expand income-earning opportunities in rural and urban areas, but the increased competition constrains earnings. In the worst affected communities, households are increasingly bartering labor, livestock, and other commodities, but the terms of trade are often unfavorable for poor households. 

    The dry and hot conditions also negatively impacted vegetable production and sales. The shortage of vegetables in most markets is driving high prices, mainly affecting poor households whose meals typically constitute staple cereal and vegetables. The early seasonal wild and on-farm vegetable varieties such as blackjack (Bidens Pilosa) nhungumira/ucucuza, pumpkin leaves, leafy okra (derere/idelele), Spider wisp/weed or nyevhe/ulude (Cleome gynadra), are not available across most parts of the country following the prolonged dry conditions. Typically, these vegetable varieties are popular across all wealth groups but mainly serve to cushion poor household consumption during the lean season while at the same time providing some income through sales or barter. 

    Remittances targeted towards poor households continue to be below normal, especially in southern areas with a high reliance on South Africa. The Zimbabwe Exemption Permits (ZEP), which allows Zimbabwean nationals to live and work in South Africa legally, was extended to December 2025, easing deportation concerns for some households with family members in that country.


    Seasonal Calendar for a Typical Year
    Seasonal Calendar image showing harvest periods for Zimbabwe

    Source: FEWS NET


    Updated Assumptions
    • Panic purchases and grain hoarding by households and traders will likely dry up the grain markets earlier than anticipated, even in surplus-producing areas, continuing to drive price spikes. 
    • The 2023/24 lean season assistance by the government and partners is expected to start in January 2024. The government has released the 2023/24 lean season grain support modalities, which are tied to implementing the government-promoted conservation farming (pfumvudza/intwasa) practices. 

    Projected Outlook through May 2024

    Deficit-producing areas

    From December 2023 to January 2024, the number of households facing Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes is expected to increase in typical deficit-producing southern and western areas as poor households increasingly engage in consumption coping strategies indicative of Crisis (IPC Phase 3), such as skipping meals or reducing meal sizes. Most poor households have depleted their own-produced food stocks and rely on market purchases. However, seasonal income from casual labor is largely unavailable due to the late start to the rainy season. Other income sources, such as petty trade and self-employment activities, are lower than normal due to high competition, low demand, and liquidity among better-off households. Income from livestock sales is anticipated to remain below normal due to fair to poor cattle body conditions amid below-normal pasture conditions and low access to veterinary care. Additionally, remittance flows are expected to remain below normal. Some households will likely increasingly seek to engage in informal mining to earn income. 

    February to May 2024 is split between the peak of the lean season (February and March) and the harvest period (April and May). In February and March, area-level Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes are expected in semi-arid southern, eastern, western, and extreme northern areas. The green harvests during this period are expected to be below normal or non-existent due to the late start and anticipated cumulatively below-average rainy season. In April and May 2024, the likely below-average main harvests are expected to provide very short-lived improvements in household food access and availability. Most poor households are likely to be able to meet their food needs during this time, supporting area-level Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes in most typical deficit-producing areas. However, households with a significantly below-average harvest or no harvest will remain in Crisis (IPC Phase 3). 

    Surplus-producing areas

    From December 2023 to January 2024, most households in the northern productive resettlement areas are expected to maintain area-level Minimal (IPC Phase 1) acute food insecurity outcomes due to the availability of own-produced stocks, some income from crop sales, and other typical income sources like seasonal labor. These outcomes will likely prevail through the February to May 2024 outlook period. However, an increasing number of households will likely be Stressed (IPC Phase 2) due to constrained income and above-normal prices. Below-normal main harvests in April and May will likely improve household access to food and support Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes; however, food stocks will likely not last very long.  

    In most communal parts of the typical surplus-producing areas, Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes are most likely between December 2023 and January 2024 due to reduced own-produced food stocks. Poor households are expected to experience difficulty accessing other foods and meeting their non-food needs due to low income and high prices. From February to May 2024, most of these areas are expected to maintain Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes. Food gaps will likely peak during the February to March lean season, but the likely below-normal harvests between April and May are expected to improve household food access and consumption temporarily. Food security outcomes will improve to Minimal (IPC Phase 1) for some households, but at least one in five households will likely remain Stressed (IPC Phase 2). 

    Poor households in urban areas will likely remain Stressed (IPC Phase 2) through the outlook period. They are expected to meet their minimum food needs but will continue to experience difficulty accessing non-food needs due to macroeconomic challenges, below-average income, and above-average prices. 


    Most likely food security outcomes and areas receiving significant levels of humanitarian assistance

    Recommended citation: FEWS NET. Zimbabwe Food Security Outlook Update December 2023: Planted area likely remains below normal despite good rainfall in December, 2023.

    This Food Security Outlook Update provides an analysis of current acute food insecurity conditions and any changes to FEWS NET's latest projection of acute food insecurity outcomes in the specified geography over the next six months. Learn more here.

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