How women, two million bread loaves and 19th century colonial ovens hope to fix Zimbabwe's bread famine
Illustration Credit: Cameron Scheijde / Freepik

Nozipo Moyo pushes a wet log to lock the iron lid of her rudimentary oven from toppling out of the heated enclosure lest her tea scones comes out burnt-off and sooty. With ungloved hands, along with her ten other baker and pastry colleagues they take turns to use their fists to mold flour into dough.

But they don’t have electric or automatic pita bread machines.

What they have instead are “smart ovens”, she boasts as she steams a crunch of sour-dough bread bristling with toasted sunflower seeds and butter flakes. “99% of Zimbabwe’s women can actually bake bread and pizzas if simply given fire and flour”, says Nozipo.

Critics mocks her efforts as ‘stone-age bush bakeries’ that is Roman Dutch pit ovens that are an inch away from soiling Zimbabwe’s bread and pizza eaters with serious hygiene illnesses. But Nozipo is adamant she is a part of a revolution out to bake two million loaves of wheat bread and scones weekly across rural Zimbabwe using 1960s mud ovens powered by fierce-burning cow dung fuel, and, perhaps in the future, solar power.

The United Nations Rapporteur on Food Rights, Hilal Elver, declared in December last year that Zimbabwe is on the brink of food starvation and 60% of its poorest households are unable to hold down one meal. This is arguably some of the hardest famine in Africa outside a war zone, some observers say.

While shortage of white corn maize, the country’s staple foodstuff, is at the heart of the agony, wheat bread; a nutrition treasure for millions of Zimbabwe households and an anchor of household breakfasts, is also either expensive or empty from store shelves. Native Zimbabweans have had a salient affair with wheat bread since the early 1950s, when colonial agriculture expanded acres to grow wheat. Bread is Zimbabwe’s second most important staple and wheat makes up to 4% of the country’s gross domestic product. While former colonial bread corporations like Lobels, served up refined white bread for affluent white families from 1940s, millions of rural and city black working class rebelled with a remake of a special dough from flour.

They used wood amber ovens to bake ‘chimodho’ a sturdy, starchy mold of home-oven bread that could be spruced with butter and jam and beefed up the appetites of eaters for 10 hours. Today, this all in the past because a takeover of white-held commercial farms in early 2000s has collapsed the country’s wheat produce by two thirds to a mere 60 000 tons, according to Graeme Murdoch who is vice-chairman of Zimbabwe’s National Wheat Contract Farming Committee. This has resulted in hunger and a persisting black market for industrial wheat bread.

As a fix 1000 rural women so far, urged on by Zimbabwe’s women affairs ministry, are forging ahead with what is boasted of as ‘command bread ovens’. This is the language of Communist-style solutions to the country’s myriad of problems. “Through efforts of rural mothers, we want to grab control of our bread making as a country again,” says Oppah Muchinguri, a senior minister in Zimbabwe government, praising efforts like those of Nozipo.

The hope is that every rural village ward in Zimbabwe must have five artisanal bread and pizza-bakers like Nozipo who trained to build and operate mud ovens. 

“To help this baking movement started by the women themselves, we are compiling a database of artisanal community ovens in provinces,” says Mabel Chinomona, Zimbabwe’s minister for women affairs.

“Community bread and pizza bakeries constructed out of mud, cow dung and bricks are the real deal,” says Nozipo as she fans a tray of scones from the overpowering smoke of wet Mahogany specie tree firewood. “Actually bread or pizza from the fire tastes better,” she adds.

These type of muddy bread stoves were once wildly popular in 60s when due racist policies black Zimbabweans were often excluded from shopping for refined supermarket white bread, says Brian Ngwenya, an independent Zimbabwe sociologist. “There is room to argue that we in Zimbabwe have never really left the 1960s,” he laughs. “Artisanal bread making is one of the peculiar things we inherited from the colonial state.” Community bakeries was properly introduced again in late 80s after the fall of colonialism in Zimbabwe.

“The ovens served their purpose and we moved on to industrial bread. These latest community ovens are common family pizza ovens for dinners. They can’t be an effective national source of industrial bread though,” he says.

Still it seems Zimbabwe women has moved to the 80s again for a solution. The latest plan is to supply 2 million loaves of bread weekly across rural Zimbabwe where hunger is acute, says Bevan Musoko, a retired midwife who styles herself as a community ‘bread superviso’´ in Vungu (a district where the ovens movement began) as she supervises the mixing of flour and yeast in a scones tray for her students like Nozipo. Bevan supervises the bread makers in the district where women are already operating 180 community ovens that have been built up so far as a model.

“Our rural folks are enjoying the $8.50 ($US 0, 70 cents) loaf while city dwellers are having to fork out almost $20 ($US 1, 50cents) per loaf. These are real solutions making an impact on the ground,” Bevan says.

Restless bread prices and shortages in Zimbabwe´s cities are now rooted in Zimbabwe. Consumer inflation is running away at nearly 800% according to Steven Hanke, a troubled currencies professor at Cato Institute who has developed a unique model to track Zimbabwe inflation, thus forcing civil servants like teacher, nurses to sometime take meals without it. Cheap bread causes near-stampedes in shops and stores.

Nozipo and ten other village women stir their hands as a puddle in flour bowls while they take turns to inflame the bread oven fires with more cow dung. “Our pizza bread is stone-baked, authentic ready for shop shelves. People are joyous, offering to pay more for a wheat bun, biscuits or sugary scones.”

It will be a miracle invention to manufacture bread in rural Zimbabwe without yeast, flour, electricity or salt, mocks Charlton Hwende an accountant and lawmaker. “Decent bread ovens cost just $US1200 in China. The government can import and avoid mud ovens or commission craftsmen to design modern economical ovens which might even cost only $US200,” he says.

Wood-burning artisanal bread ovens that will gobble away what remains of Zimbabwe´s meagre forests, charges Joanna Mamombe, a biochemist and legislator in Zimbabwe parliament.

“I’m all for rural development. Village bakeries are awesome, but not as a solution to government failure,” says Thandeka Moyo, one of Zimbabwe´s most well-known female activists.

“Our community ovens won’t require the electricity that country currently don’t have,” disagrees Bevan the bread ovens supervisor, “So a $US1200 Chinese-made pizza oven mounted with mixers, dividers and final proofer’s won’t run here.”

The agony of bread hunger in Zimbabwe is not lack of bakeries – but flour and wheat, adds Brian Ngwenya, the independent sociologist. “Bakeries are not the problem; we have 2000 sophisticated commercial bakeries. First symptom is bread shortage from wheat shortage.” It is useless to teach rural Zimbabwe women to bake because are unable to afford to buy common flour. He argues, “Please let us working class people decent wages so they so they buy common wheat flour not build smelly ovens in dirty fields.”

Oppah Muchinguri says women run rural community ovens at ward level will solve the issue of mafias that are holding bread eaters at ransom. “We are dealing commercial bread shortages as well as exorbitant prices being charged for bread, while at the same time providing high quality, healthy, affordable bread, made fresh daily in the community,” she says.

After a blistering summer, it is going to rain soon in Lupane as across Zimbabwe. Nozipo is clueless how their open pit ovens will fare in mud and mist. She dusts a tray tea buns of from the glows of a dying fire, “Maybe our bakeries are seasonal.”