Around 200 kilometres from the Zimbabwean capital Harare lies the region of Hurungwe. Drought is common here, and back in 2011, minimal rainfall left crops devastated. Families had no surplus food to sell, and no money to buy grain. Nationally, an estimated one in three children suffered from malnutrition that year. Hurungwe was among the worst hit.
Help should have come from a state grain scheme that allocated seeds, grain and fertilisers to impoverished farmers, helping them survive through the next harvest. Yet when our legal advice centre visited the region, people told a very different story.
“Everyone kept mentioning one particular official”, says Danai, an officer from our advice centre. “They claimed he had been abusing his position for more than 10 years. Instead of giving out the supplies for free, he’d charge extortionate amounts from desperate farmers, making as much as US$1,000 a day in profits. The only people who got the grain without paying were members of the ruling party. If depot staff tried to leak the information to the public, they were threatened and dismissed.”
Taking on the case, Danai contacted the grain marketing board, asking to meet with them.
“They said no at first, but I persisted until they responded to me,” she says. “A few weeks after we first spoke, they got back to me. They said they had investigated, and while they did not have enough evidence to dismiss the official, they had decided to move him closer to the head office so he could be kept under surveillance.”
She remembers the response from the community when they heard the news. “The women living there called me,” she says, “they were so happy that after 10 years someone had managed to get the manager removed from the depot.”
Today, Danai and her team are checking to ensure the villagers receive their subsidies. The bigger solution, though, is greater public scrutiny. “The grain initiative is so important, but there’s a lack of transparency in how it’s administered. If we want to stop this kind of abuse happening again, this needs to change.”