Zimbabwe to give $160 mln in aid to farmers

HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's government said on Wednesday it would supply poor rural farmers with $161 million of free seed and fertilizer to improve food security, but the grants may be too late for farmers due to start planting this month.

Once a net food exporter, the southern African country is facing its worst food shortage in four years after a drought and poor harvest, the U.N. World Food Programme said last month.

Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa and Agriculture Minister Joseph Made said the government wanted to help 1.6 million farmers who are unable to buy the inputs.

The government expects to pay $21 million this week to clear arrears to fertiliser and seed firms, as well as farmers who supplied maize to the state-owned Grain Marketing Board.

"This is a demonstration of support to agriculture, which is the backbone of our economy," said Chinamasa. "It is unfortunate though that because of elections, which came late, and the formation of the new government, which came late, we were not able to go into this matter earlier."

President Robert Mugabe, 89, won an overwhelming victory in the July 31 elections, which were disputed by the opposition.

Made said Britain, the United States and European Union, which have criticised the vote as flawed, had contributed to a $20 million Food and Agriculture Organisation fund to buy agriculture inputs for 70,000 poor farmers.

However, with farmers already preparing land for planting at the end of the month, the aid may arrive too late.

Made also said stocks of fertilisers were very low, which could see companies resorting on imports to meet demand, a process that could take at least two months.

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