After a thin harvest, Rudo Mangwere, 32, a farmer in Chirumhanzu district, some 200km southwest of Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, has resorted to selling wild honey by the roadside to beat hunger. She is one of just over a million rural Zimbabweans who will struggle to feed themselves for the next four months.
A single mother with three school-going children, Mangwere's poor harvest was partly the result of inadequate rainfall in her area during the 2010/11 farming season, but also because she has no access to draught animals - oxen or a horse - to pull a plough.
"Almost every family from my area is on the road[side] these days, selling honey, mazhanje (wild loquats) and firewood. We hardly harvested anything, and this is the only way we can keep our children from starving," Mangwere told IRIN.
Like most households from her community in Midlands Province, she can no longer pay her children's school fees and the family is surviving on wild fruits and one main meal in the evening, she said. Although food is readily available in the local shops, most of the villagers do not have the money to buy it.
A report by the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZIMVAC), a government-led consortium of UN agencies, official bodies and non-governmental organizations which conducts annual food security assessments, found that 12 percent of the rural population "will not be able to meet their minimum cereal needs during the 2011/12 season" .
The figure represents a slight improvement over the 15 percent who needed food assistance in the 2010/11 season. Parts of Zimbabwe have been hit by a number of poor harvests caused by too little rain, a shortage of income to buy farming inputs, and poor planning, which have forced the government to import cereals and the hungry to depend on food donations.
The report notes that the drought-prone southern and western areas of the country have been most affected, particularly the Masvingo and Matabeleland North and South provinces, where subsistence farming is the sole source of income for most rural households.
"Agricultural production in these regions was once again poor this season," said Felix Bamezon, country director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), in a recent statement. "The situation is made worse by the economic downturn and we're already seeing families resorting to skipping meals and reducing portion sizes."
WFP is implementing a targeted seasonal programme of food distributions, cash transfers and food vouchers to assist low-income households and families with orphans and vulnerable children.
Tomson Phiri, a WFP spokesperson, told IRIN that the programme aimed to reach about 200,000 people in the affected regions with cereals, beans and vegetables during the peak hunger period between November and March.
"We have targeted 34 districts and are already on the ground in 24 districts where we are registering and assisting those in need," he said.
WFP is appealing for US$42 million to cover a shortfall in funding for its food assistance programmes in Zimbabwe.
"Longer-term measures such as greater investment in agriculture and the livestock sector are essential," said Bamezon. "But for now, those who are most vulnerable need urgent assistance."
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