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School of Geography

Feed the children – understanding the issues of food security in Zimbabwe

Tim Brown

Tim Brown

Professor of Global Health Geography

In the southern eastern country of Zimbabwe, a staggering 90 per cent of children aged six months to two years are not getting enough to eat. Indeed, 60 per cent of the total population do not have secure access to food. In general, the responsibility for feeding children falls to mothers as primary carers. What can be done to support these women?

Professors Brown and Datta of the School of Geography have been working with a multi-disciplinary team, including researchers at the Zvitambo Institute for Maternal and Child Health Research to better understand severe acute malnutrition in children under the age of five.

How can mothers be supported to ensure their children are adequately nourished in their most crucial years of growth and development? The research aims to understand what is needed to offer food security to children and especially those living in impoverished circumstances in rural and urban settings..

How is the research conducted?

Professors Brown and Datta identified that the factors causing these issues were complex, and that the solutions would need to be equally nuanced. The researchers conducted interviews with caregivers and with healthcare professionals, as well as focus group discussions with community stakeholders. They led a workshop in May 2021, engaging cross-disciplinary researchers and civil society organisations based in Zimbabwe.

What is food security?

Food security means that people have assured access to nutritionally adequate and safe food. Originally, the term ‘food security’ defined whether a nation had enough food to meet the dietary energy requirements of its population. But this does not necessarily mean that all people have assured access to good food at all times.

In previous generations, Zimbabwe was regarded as the “Breadbasket of Africa”, producing and exporting food crops such as wheat and maize. However, in more recent times, both urban and rural populations  were described as being “one step away from famine” and the country a global “hunger hotspot.”  

Zimbabwean workers with gifts

Zimbabwe’s colonial legacy

Like its neighbour, South Africa, Zimbabwe bears the scars of its settler colonial past. Before independence, white British and European people claimed fertile land and forced African farmers into “native reserves”: areas where the soil and conditions make it extremely difficult to grow food. For example, Natural Region III is prone to drought, and the soil is sandy and infertile. Even though white rule ended in 1980, these socio-geographical divides still exist in many parts of the country.

Because it is difficult for families to survive in these regions through subsistence farming, men and women have tended to migrate to cities and more fertile regions to work, both within Zimbabwe and beyond its borders. In doing so, they hope to be able to make enough money to support their relatives.

Rural and urban food insecurity

Those citizens living in rural regions may struggle to grow enough food to live on, and may need money to purchase nutritious staples they are unable to grow. For those in urban areas, the issue is with food procurement. Simply put, do they have the money to buy the food they need, and is the food they want and need accessible?

The impact of Covid-19

For those living in urban areas, Covid regulations especially lockdowns, hit hard. They were unable to buy food from markets. Those who made their livings as vendors were not able to send money back to relatives in rural areas. For those living and working across the border in South Africa, the informal system of sending money with taxi drivers and buses was disrupted, further exacerbating the problem.

When food aid comes, they provide sorghum and split peas and that already is a challenge on its own as most of the community members have a running tummy as they do not know how to prepare it.
— Workshop participant

Culture and food security

Not all food donations can solve the problem of hunger – it is important that people are given access to food that they know, like and understand how to prepare. The importance of this is illustrated in the recognition of cultural food insecurity.

Understanding the culture of a group and providing food that meet social and cultural needs is vital. Similarly, it’s important to understand that mothers may feel reluctant to seek food aid or advice from community health workers out of shame.

How can this knowledge inform change?

Professors Brown and Datta hope that their research will influence policy in Zimbabwe. It seems clear that any initiatives in food security need to consider the issues revealed in this research:

  • an understanding of the complexities of food security as a concept
  • the intersections between food security, mobility and migration, and a recognition of the importance of informal channels and cross-border mobility
  • the role that culture and tradition plays in people’s access to food

What is clear is that nuanced solutions need to be developed sooner rather than later, to reverse this appalling crisis-driven epidemic of malnutrition and hunger.

... the food we are talking about must have a direct connection to the socio-cultural framework of the people who are eating that food. It does not help me to have lots of food to have access to eat and is nutritious and yet as [a person] I cannot relate to it, that will not help. Food must have a connection to the socio-cultural compass of the people who are eating it.
— Workshop participant
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