Putting food on the table is becoming increasingly difficult for Zimbabweans, with a staggering 56 percent of households reporting an unsustainable spike in the prices of essential commodities, according to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstats).
This alarming figure, highlighted in a high-frequency telephone survey of households namely Rapid Poverty Income Consumption and Expenditure Survey (PICES) (10th round), conducted in August 2023 by Zimstats and released on Thursday, paints a picture of widespread poverty across Zimbabwe.
The report delves deeper, revealing a web of socio-economic pressures such as shrinking household incomes, limited access to potable water and an increasing inability to afford electricity.
“Households faced various types of shocks in their day-to-day lives,” the report said.
“An increase in prices of basic food items emerged as the major shock experienced by households in both rural and urban areas. Fifty-six percent of the households experienced an increase in the price of major food items consumed, while 11,6 percent experienced an increase in price of farming or business inputs.”
Of note, the ability by the urban population to buy maize-meal, a staple food, decreased from 73 percent in the previous survey to 68 percent in the latest survey.
This suggests that nearly one-third of urban households surveyed are struggling to afford maize-meal, potentially impacting their food security and well-being.
“Everyday feels like a struggle to put food on the table. Prices keep going up, but our incomes remain stagnant. It is like chasing the wind. We are barely surviving,” said Tecla Mheredzwa, a teacher at a preparatory school in Harare.
Carlos Tadya, a Harare based economist, described the situation as “a stark warning sign.”
“It reflects a combination of factors like inflation, drought and lack of formal decent jobs.
“Unless we address these issues urgently, food insecurity will become a major crisis.”
While affordability of some essential items like maize-meal is declining, others like chicken are becoming more accessible.
The proportion of households able to buy chicken, a vital source of protein, rose from 64 percent to 69 percent in urban areas.
Access to cooking oil remained stagnant at 75 percent.
In rural areas, maize meal’s demand decreased significantly, dropping from 36 percent to 25 percent between rounds nine and 10.
Conversely, the willingness to buy cooking oil remained stable at around 66 percent. The most striking change comes with chicken. In round nine, only 28 percent of rural households expressed interest in buying chicken, but that number skyrocketed to 69 percent in round 10.
This dramatic increase is mirrored in purchasing ability, with the proportion of households that could buy chicken jumping from a mere 11 to a substantial 58 percent.
While all essential commodities were generally available, with at least 85 percent of respondents confirming their presence, a stark contrast emerges in rural areas.
Notably, the lower availability of beef in rural areas, with only 43 percent of respondents reporting access compared to 85 percent in urban areas, suggests affordability rather than physical scarcity as the key challenge. This trend aligns with the observed surge in demand for chicken, a comparatively more affordable source of protein.
The report paints a concerning picture of declining access to safe drinking water. The proportion of households with sufficient water nationwide dropped from 97 to 89 percent between rounds 9 and 10, representing a significant national decrease.
The situation is particularly alarming in urban areas, where access to safe water plunged from 93 to 79 percent in the same period, reflecting a substantial drop of 14 percentage points.
Rural areas also experienced a decline, with sufficient water access falling from 99 to 95 percent. While seemingly less dramatic, this still translates to thousands of rural households losing access to safe water between the rounds.
Adding to the growing concerns, the report reveals a nationwide decline in households able to afford electricity, dropping from 65 to 60 percent between rounds 9 and 10.
This further compound the already alarming picture of shrinking access to vital resources.
“Water is a basic human right and it is heartbreaking to see it slipping away,” Tobias Musara, a humanitarian worker who works for a local civil organisation said.
While urban areas generally have better access to electricity compared to rural communities, the situation is deteriorating across both sectors.
Notably, urban households also experienced a decrease in electricity affordability, although the report lacks specific data for comparison.
The report sheds light on the changing income sources for Zimbabwean households, highlighting a significant decline in reliance on farming and a corresponding increase in wage employment.
Farming remains the most common source of income, providing for 29 percent of households, but this figure represents a 10-percentage point drop compared to the previous survey.
This shift may be due to a potential challenge in the agricultural sector, such as drought, economic instability, or limited access to inputs, some analysts have suggested.
“The decline in farming dependence is concerning. It could be due to issues like climate change, or lack of support for farmers. This transition to wage employment might not be entirely positive, especially if these jobs are insecure or informal,” said Tadya.
Wage employment is on the rise, now accounting for 22 percent of household income, up from 15 percent previously. Other income sources, such as non-farm enterprises and assistance from family members, remain at 13 percent each, the report said.
While the Government has implemented safety nets aimed at mitigating hardship, a recent report reveals their limited reach, leaving many vulnerable households unsupported.
At the national level, only 6 percent of households received free grain and a mere 1 percent received cash transfers (excluding Covid-19 assistance).
This raises concerns about the adequacy of these programmes in addressing widespread social deprivations.
The disparities are even more stark when examining rural and urban areas. While 9 percent of rural households received food assistance, urban residents received none.
This lack of support in urban areas, where poverty rates are also significant, highlights a potential gap in the safety net coverage.
“We are aware of the limitations and actively working to improve safety net coverage and targeting,” said a senior official with Public Service and Social Welfare, who declined to be named citing protocol issues.
“Reaching more vulnerable urban communities and tailoring assistance are key priorities.”
The report also revealed at national level, 83 percent of transactions for key food items like maize meal, cooking oil, rice, beef, and bread were conducted in U.S dollars.
Rural areas often have fewer banks and financial institutions, making it harder for residents to access formal banking services and hold local currency electronically.
This could push them towards cash transactions and US dollars are seen as a more stable store of value compared to the local currency, Tadya said.
The report summarises results of the tenth round of the Rapid PICES, conducted in August 2023. A total of 1 040 households responded out of a sample of 1 800 households, constituting a response rate of 578 percent. Business Weekly