KELVIN KACHINGWE, Lusaka
LAST year, when the Minister of Agriculture announced the estimated crop production for the 2014/2015 farming season as well as the food balance for the marketing season covering May 2015 to April 2016, indications were that there was sufficient maize for both human consumption and industrial use.
The crop production estimates were based on a universally applied scientific survey method that is used every year, and which is jointly conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Central Statistical Office (CSO) and covers all the districts of the country.
Maize production was forecast to decrease to 2,618,221 metric tonnes from 3,350,671 metric tonnes, a reduction of 21.86 percent. The national average yield rate for maize had dropped from 2.36 metric tonnes per hectare to 1.75 metric tonnes per hectare, representing a reduction of 26 percent.
Small and medium-scale farmers recorded an average maize yield rate of 1.68 metric tonnes per hectare while large-scale farmers had recorded an average maize yield rate of 4.36 metric tonnes per hectare. With local prices of maize, which was introduced in Africa in the 1500s, being roughly US$170 per tonne, commercial maize is not viable to grow at a large scale.
â€œThe national food balance sheet for the 2015/2016 marketing season based on the crop forecasting survey shows that the country has produced sufficient maize for both human consumption and industrial use,â€ Given Lubinda, the Minister of Agriculture, said.
â€œâ€¦ The country also has a maize carry-over stock amounting to 1,345,401 metric tonnes. Most of this maize is under safe storage with the Food Reserve Agency, private traders and commercial farmers. When the maize carry-over stock from last season is added to the maize production for the 2014/2015 agricultural season, the total supply of maize available for the 2015/2016 marketing season is 3,963,622 metric tonnes.
â€œFor an estimated population of 15.7 million people, the food balance sheet shows that total maize required for human consumption, industrial use and other commitments amounts to 3,086,854 metric tonnes. The total maize requirements include an anticipated national strategic reserve stock of 500,000 metric tonnes to be held by the Food Reserve Agency.
â€œWhen total maize requirements are subtracted from total maize availability, the food balance sheet indicates that the country has recorded a maize surplus of 876,738 metric tonnes.â€
Pretty safe for Zambia!
But around April this year, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) announced that southern Africaâ€™s maize harvest was expected to shrink by some 26 percent compared with 2014â€™s bumper crop, a situation that could trigger food price increases and adversely affect recent food security gains.
For 2015, the early production forecast for maize stood at about 21.1 million tonnes, some 15 percent lower than the average for the last five years.
The fall was attributed mostly to the impact of erratic weather conditions, including the late start of seasonal rains in November/ December, followed by heavy rains that caused flooding in parts of some countries, and then a long dry spell in the southern areas of the sub-region during February and early March.
The significant drop in the harvest of maize in South Africa – the sub-regionâ€™s main producer and exporter, was expected to account for most of the overall decline in maize production. Malawi and Zambia are the second and third biggest maize producers in the sub-region. However, lower maize harvests were also anticipated in Botswana, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
â€œWith the expected fall in maize production in the sub-region, and the resulting price hikes, the improved food security situation may be reversed in 2015/2016, especially if no timely interventions are made. Close monitoring is critical to trigger early action to reduce any negative effects on peopleâ€™s food security and livelihoods. This is at the core of FAOâ€™s efforts to build more resilient livelihoods,â€ said Dominique Burgeon, FAOâ€™s resilience coordinator.
In December last year, the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), a leading provider of early warning and analysis on acute food insecurity, also reported changes to regional maize availability estimates in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Swaziland.
â€œBased on updated 2015/16 production, opening stock, consumption, and strategic reserve figures, the regional maize balance for the 2015/16 marketing year is now estimated to be a deficit of 500,000 metric tonnes to 600,000 metric tonnes.
â€œOn average, the region typically has an aggregate maize surplus of nearly 3,000,000 metric tonnes, making this yearâ€™s shortage a significant anomaly. Zimbabweâ€™s maize deficit remains the largest in the region, followed by Malawi and Mozambique,â€ FEWS Net, created in 1985 by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) after devastating famines in East and West Africa, reported.
â€œWith less than 30 percent of surplus supplies remaining in Zambia, the main source of imports for Zimbabwe and Malawi, Zimbabwe and Malawi are expected to have maize shortages until the beginning of the next harvest (April 2016).
â€œPrices will remain well above average across the region, especially in Malawi and South Africa.â€
More bad news for the southern African region was reported this year.
As is well known, maize does not tolerate drought well and the grain can rot during storage in tropical climates while a lack of sunshine and nitrogen can reduce the production potential of the crop.
In February, the World Food Programme; FEWS NET; European Commissionâ€™s Joint Research Centre; and FAO; reported that southern Africa was in the grip of an intense drought that had expanded and strengthened since the earliest stages of the 2015-2016 agricultural season, driven by one of the strongest El NiÃ±o events of the last 50 years.
â€œAcross large swathes of Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, and Madagascar, the current rainfall season has so far been the driest in the last 35 years. Agricultural areas in northern Namibia and southern Angola have also experienced high levels of water deficit,â€ read the joint statement.
â€œMuch of the southern African sub-region has consequently experienced significant delays in planting and very poor conditions for early crop development and pasture re-growth. In many areas, planting has not been possible due to 30 to 50 day delays in the onset of seasonal rains, resulting in widespread crop failure.
â€œAlthough there has been some relief since mid-January in certain areas, the window of opportunity for the successful planting of crops under rain-fed conditions is nearly closed. Even assuming normal rainfall for the remainder of the season, crop water balance models indicate poor performance of maize over a widespread area.
â€œâ€¦These conditions follow a 2014-2015 agricultural season that was similarly characterised by hot, dry conditions and a 23 percent drop in regional cereal production. This has increased the regionâ€™s vulnerability due to the depletion of regional cereal stocks and higher-than-average food prices, and has substantially increased food insecurity.â€
This scenario obviously has created a huge demand for maize in the region.
This is what has led to the smuggling of maize from Zambia to other neighbouring countries which are in more acute need. However, this scenario has led to an increase in the price of mealie meal in the country.
Government has acted, first, with a one-week ban on the export in order to verify the available stocks in the country.
Going forward, Zambia is expected to record a good harvest in the 2015/2016 harvest season.
The Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU) says despite the low rainfall in some parts of the country, Zambia should still be able to have some good maize yield.
â€œThe rainfall pattern has shown improvement in the second half of the season that has given the union hope that the yield for 2015/2016 harvest season will be positive,â€ ZNFU spokesperson Kingsley Kaswende says.
KELVIN KACHINGWE, Lusaka