* Retailers, shoppers warn of shortages
* Underlines scale of economic crisis
* Zimbabwean imports are mostly from South Africa (Adds detail, quotes)
By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Zimbabwe banned fruit and vegetable imports on Tuesday to preserve its dwindling reserves of hard currency, drawing immediate warnings of food shortages.
The order, which followed a ban on maize imports in June, alarmed retailers and street dealers in the capital Harare who get much of their produce from neighbouring South Africa.
The shutdown, which Agriculture Minister Joseph Made said was immediate, underlined the scale of the economic crisis in what was once one of southern Africa’s agricultural heartlands, in the build-up to next year’s national elections.
Made told the Herald newspaper that veteran President Robert Mugabe had made the order himself to stop the imports because “they waste much needed foreign currency”.
“This means that the importation of fruit and vegetables will be stopped immediately. We are finalising on the exact list of foreign-produced fruits that are occupying shelves in shops,” Made said.
The order would let local farmers increase output, he added.
The minister declined to give further details when contacted by Reuters.
“It can’t be a blanket ban since we are not producing as much fruit and vegetables to adequately supply the local market,” said the head of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Retailers, Denford Mutashu. “We would need to review this.”
Shopper Erica Juma said she doubted Zimbabwe would be able to satisfy local demand by itself.
“If we can produce enough there is no problem with the ban. But I doubt we are able to,” Juma said, while picking up South African grapes in Pick n Pay supermarket for her lunch in central Harare.
At a busy road intersection, street hawker Sam Nyandima said the ban would hit his supplies.
“We survive on selling fruits to motorists. If they go ahead with this ban it will badly affect our livelihoods,” he said, as he sold pawpaw, mangoes and plums in the blazing sun.
The country dumped its currency for the U.S. dollar in 2009 because it was wrecked by hyperinflation but it is now running short of dollars as well as quasi-currency “bond note” introduced last year to ease cash shortages.
Zimbabwe’s latest currency crisis is blamed on low export earnings, increased government domestic borrowing that has increased money supply not matched by dollar inflows and high govermnment spending, 90 percent which goes to salaries.
Commercial agriculture has not recovered from the hit it took after 2000 from Mugabe’s seizures of land from white farmers.
Last year Zimbabwe spent more than $80 million on fruit and vegetables imports, according to national statistics agency Zimstat.
Many Zimbabweans keep stashes of U.S. dollars at home, or resort to buying hard currency on the black market when they want to travel or pay for imports. (Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Andrew Heavens)