HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe plans to import up to 700,000 tonnes of the staple maize this year to avert hunger as the El Nino weather pattern brings poor rains and affects crops in the Southern African nation, the state-owned Herald newspaper reported on Tuesday.
Last year the government imported only 100,000 tonnes as of November, but Agriculture Minister Joseph Made told the Herald that Zimbabwe had received less than three quarters of its rainfall needs in November and December, the first two months of the agricultural season, which will worsen food shortages.
The government would allocate $260 million to import between 500,000 and 700,000 tonnes of maize, he said.
The El Nino weather pattern follows last year's drought in Southern Africa and will add misery to the world's poorest continent, already hit by a collapse in commodity prices triggered by China's slowing economic growth.
Agriculture is critical to Zimbabwe's economy, generating 30 percent of export earnings and contributing 19 percent to GDP, while 70 percent of the population still survives on farming.
"It is the government's responsibility to be the main supplier of food," Made was quoted as saying.
"Even if the rains were to come, it will not benefit the crops to the level that we will be secure 100 percent on our own," said Made.
He declined to comment further when contacted by Reuters.
It was not immediately clear how the government would raise money for maize imports as it struggles to pay salaries for public sector workers. The finance minister did not provide funds for maize imports in his 2016 budget, presented on Nov. 26.
Made said the number of people in need of food aid was rising in the western and southern parts of the country.
"We have allowed millers to import grain. Millers have been given permits to import 1.2 million tonnes of maize in the past 12 months but they have only imported 450,000 tonnes," he said.
(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Susan Fenton)