Desperate entrepreneurs are scouring rubbish dumps, abattoirs and poisoned waterways for scraps of food to eat or sell to other equally hungry Zimbabweans in a bid for survival.
The implicit health hazards of rotting food and fish are a secondary concern to Saidi Arufandika, 60, who regularly cycles 34km from the dormitory town of Chitungwiza to the capital, Harare, to sift through the garbage at Mbare Musika market, where the traders discard heaps of tomatoes, cabbages, carrots and potatoes as unsuitable for sale.
"I have joined many other people in scrounging for food at this dumping site, because that is my only way of ensuring that my grandchildren have food," Arufandika told IRIN. "For my age, cycling almost 70km a day is very taxing, but that is the only way of beating the hunger that we are facing."
At home he picks through the best of his harvest to feed his bed-ridden son and three grandchildren left in his care after his two daughters left home to become sex workers.
The excess food is dried in the sun to disguise its rotten state and sold in the neighbourhood, where he finds a ready market, as few people can afford to buy fresh vegetables.
"I have been coming to Mbare since February this year. I made the decision after my grandchildren went for two days surviving on water alone," said Arufandika, whose monthly pension has been made worthless by the country's official inflation rate of 231 million percent.
His Chitungwiza neighbour, John Murombedzi, 48, has cast his net wider in his effort to survive. "I have a tight schedule in which I alternate between visiting the garbage sites in Mbare, waiting for offals and other meat products that are thrown away at a nearby abattoir, and going around the lakes close to Harare to look for fish," he told IRIN.
Murombedzi combs the shores of the reservoirs, picking up fish succumbing to oxygen depletion in weed-choked waterways, and uses some of the catch for his own consumption and then sells the remainder at informal drinking establishments.
"My clients do not know that the fish I sell to them would have died of poisoning, and that the offals are collected from a garbage site. Even though I sometimes feel bad about it, I have come to the conclusion that it is better to ensure my own survival than to be honest to others," he said.
Leather disguised as meat
Occasionally the abattoir's owner has given him animal hides, "but no-one is making shoes in Zimbabwe these days, so I carefully work the hide and boil it thoroughly to sell as meat to beer drinkers." Murombedzi suspects that his are not the only such acts of "dishonesty" and that others are doing the same to stay alive.
His 13-year-old son has been battling cholera, an easily treatable waterborne disease that spread through Chitungwiza, claiming several lives as a consequence of interrupted water supplies and sewer pipe bursts left unrepaired.
"Water supplies are so irregular where I stay and in some cases I am forced to give my children food that would not have been properly washed. My son could have died due to cholera. Ours is a vicious cycle of hunger, death and the struggle to survive," he said.
"Hunger in urban areas, like food insecurity in rural areas, is spiralling out of control and the scale of need is shocking," Fambai Ngirande, spokesperson for the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO), told IRIN.
The UN predicts that more than 5.1 million people, or nearly half the country's population, will require emergency food assistance in the first quarter of 2009.
"The issue of food insecurity in Zimbabwe, from the perspective of humanitarian organisations, has largely tended to have rural dimensions, and even though there is focus on vulnerable groups of society in towns and cities, more attention has been given to rural communities," Ngirande said.
He said increasing hunger and poverty in urban areas could easily cause civil unrest, and blamed the government, which recently accused NGOs of hoarding food in order to create discontent among the people.
"The government ought to re-engage the international community in good faith because without that, people are going to die. As it is, a lot of uncertainty surrounds the next harvests because there are no inputs for the current farming season, Ngirande said.
Renson Gasela, an agriculture expert and spokesman on the sector for the opposition the Movement for Democratic Change, told IRIN: "The reality for urban areas is that there are those who are living comfortably - mostly through hook and crook - but they belong to the minority, and there are those that are struggling to put food on the table.
"Tension is growing, and one day they might take to the streets in protests, despite the presence of big guns and tear gas."