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Urgent food supplies needed to reach families facing hunger crisis in Zambia

A woman stands in a green field of wild grasses, holding up Zita roots, which villages are forced to consume due to severe food insecurity

By Amar Nayak, roving global humanitarian adviser at ActionAid

Zambia is facing an unprecedented food crisis. More than 2.4 million people are affected and at least 430,000 people are experiencing severe food insecurity described as just one level below famine.

Families are surviving by reducing the number of meals they eat a day, which is already leading to high levels of malnutrition.

A huge decline in Maize production due to drought, is behind the emergency, with prices soaring and reaching an all-time high last November, 90% higher than in 2018.

This week, along with district officers and ActionAid Zambia’s partner organisation, Keepers Zambia Foundation, we visited villages in the western part of the Nalolo district.

Southern and western areas of Zambia are most affected by the crisis. In 2018-2019, southern Zambia saw its worst rainfall season since 1981. In the western province, 44% of the total population – 409,891 people – are in what is classed as ‘crisis phase’.

This means families are experiencing high levels of acute malnutrition and wasting. They may be using harmful coping strategies such as selling off livestock and assets, child labour and migration, which will have a negative impact on livelihoods in the long term.

We met with members of eight community welfare assistant committees (CWACs), formed by the district government to coordinate social welfare programmes. Although they remembered severe droughts in 1992 and 1994, they said this is worst ever.

They described a desperate situation facing families in the villages, who have resorted to crisis coping strategies, eating wild fruits such as Mawawa, Mubula, Rosewood and roots of a grass called Zita.

Many of the community members complained about stomach problems, headaches, skin irritation and nausea. We met the health assistant of the Rural Health Centres in Malumbe, who said that many women and children came to the centre with stomach problems and this is due to eating too much of these fruits and Zita.

Food shortages have led to women going without food so they can give what little they have to their children. One woman said she would give food first to the children and men, if anything is left, she would eat last. Most of the time she goes without food or eats very little. 

The food crisis is also impacting children’s education. Teachers said that the school dropout rate has been very high since November and that girls are dropping out in large numbers.

Women we met with also raised concerns about an increased in incidences of domestic violence.

Maize is the staple food for families in the region and the crop has completely failed due the lack of rains.

There is a huge dependence on maize crops due to the aggressive promotion of various maize varieties by the seed companies and the dealers.

This has been at the expense of other food crops. For example, the families have not grown more drought resistant crops like cassava or other crops like millet.

We also understand that the families have no money to buy the certified maize seeds and mostly depend on the black market to buy low-quality seeds.

Most of the farmers said the seeds they tried to plant after the rain did not germinate well. They have lost hope that they will get anything from their land this season.

As these villages are in very remote locations and have no road network to reach them, the families who did have money to buy food find it difficult to access local markets. The cost of carrying supplies from the nearest market is very high and the price of the food is soaring.

The situation is forcing young people to migrate to neighbouring Namibia in search of work.

Later this week, ActionAid Zambia in collaboration with the District Disaster Management Unit, District Social Welfare Department and our local partner, Keepers Zambia Foundation, will distribute maize and beans to 200 families.

But many more families are in desperate need of food supplies. If an intervention is not planned soon for the families who are on the margins of survival, their situation will further deteriorate and there is a risk of famine.

ActionAid Zambia’s communications and campaigns manager, Sharon Mwamba, spoke to women desperately trying to find enough food for their families to survive.

Nalishebo Nalishebo said that her family and her fellow community members are eating wild fruits known as mawawa, mubula and rosewood because of drought, low harvest, failed crops and the increasing price of maize meal.

Maize meal is the community’s staple meal and they have gone for more than 21 days without eating this.

As a substitute, people have been uprooting wild grass locally known as zita, which grows in open wet areas such as swamps. The roots are then cleaned and dried, pounded and then cooked for the family to eat.

Nalishebo like many others in the community explained that it is now common for people to experience stomach aches and skin irritation upon eating either wild fruits, zita roots or wild mushrooms.

But she said her family has no other choice because they cannot afford to buy food due to the poor harvest as they would have done if they had good rain in the previous rainy season.