Zambia, a country whose economy seems to move from crisis to crisis, is engaged in a race against time to avoid a temporary famine.
The southern African nation is down to about one month's supply of its staple food, corn, and the new crop will not be available for three months.
It now appears that because of belated moves to organize transportation routes for imports, the landlocked country will pull through, but just barely. How it will do so is indicative of just how Zambia's economy operates after years of buffeting by the war in neighboring Rhodesia, falling copper prices, drought and mismanagement.
Until about a week ago, several international aid officials were predicting that the country might run out of grain for several weeks before emergency aid shipments from the United States and Europe arrive about mid-May.
One official even named a date, April 23, when the country would be without any corn. He said the country had only managed to bring in about 22,000 tons, mainly from South Africa, in the first 2 1/2 months of the year. On some days, the heavily populated northern Copperbelt area has been down to one day's supply, about 800 tons.
Now the rate of shipments is up to 30,000 tons a month, the official said, meaning that Zambia will "get over the critical period, but just."
"They're cutting it damn fine," he added, however, "cutting stocks down to zero. It's a dangerous game."
Even so, Zambia has no corn for stock feed -- it has to be used for human consumption. As a result, much of the poultry in the country has been slaughtered.
Zambia's 5.5 million population consumes almost 2,000 tons of corn a day and the two railway and two road routes are only bringing in half that amount daily despite speeded-up deliveries. The rest must come out of the rapidly dwindling 70,000 stock-pile.
Zambia has contracted with white-ruled South Africa, its main source for purchases, for only about 48,000 more tons, not enough to get through the difficult three-month period. It is gambling that grants of 125,000 tons of corn scheduled to start arriving about mid-May from the United States and Europe will come so that no more precious foreign exchange will have to be spent.
Imported corn costs Zambia about $300,000 a day, exclusive of the high transportation charges.
International aid officials started warning Zambia a year ago that the disastrous 1979 corn crop would force the country to undertake large-scale purchases on the international market. Zambia, however, was preoccupied with seeking to end the war in Rhodesia that was increasingly spilling over its borders and did little to line up supplies until about six months ago. o
For two months late last year, Zambia was at the mercy of the Rhodesian government of then-prime minister Bishop Abel Muzorewa, who imposed an embargo on corn shipments through the country, the main route to Zambia.
Normally Zambia is self-sufficient in corn producing about 650,000 tons a year. Last year's crop was only half the average because of drought and decreased plantings as farmers protested low prices. The government raised the price by 20 percent this year, but dry spells and rain at the wrong times will probably cut the 1980 crop to about 400,000 tons, meaning that the crisis will continue for another year.
President Kenneth Kaunda's administration, already plagued by labor strife and continuing shortages of many consumer products, has sought to keep the corn shortage quiet because of concern over the possibility of urban riots if panic buying begins.
Last October, when the national agricultural marketing board sharply cut the amount of corn being milled, there were stampedes in some stores.
One Zambian official shrugged off the tight food situation, saying, "Zambia has gone from one crisis to another. We've always lived like that."
Another official said, however, "I pray we don't have a famine. But sometimes prayers are not enough if you haven't done your work."