Zimbabwe may need South Africa maize this year — but it needs our farming skills too

This is a difficult year for Zimbabweans. Aside from the government’s recent decision to increase fuel prices, which led to a widespread resistance, Zimbabwe is likely to experience maize shortage later in the year, which would also result in an increase in food prices.

Farmers in most regions of the country experienced dryness at the beginning of the production season, which negatively affected crops. As a result, production of Zimbabwe’s staple food crop, maize, could decline by 45% year-on-year in the 2018-2019 marketing year to 1.2-million tonnes. This is according to data from the International Grains Council.

Given that Zimbabwe’s annual maize consumption roughly varies between 1.8-million and 2-million tonnes, the country will have to import roughly 800,000 tonnes to fulfil the domestic demand. This is under the assumption that the opening stocks will be at roughly 459,000 tonnes, according to estimates from the US department of agriculture.

If this is the situation, where Zimbabwe will get its additional maize supplies will be a challenge. Within Southern Africa, the most likely suppliers would be Zambia and SA, but they too might have a poor harvest due to dryness experienced in the past couple of weeks, which led to a reduction in area planted.

Having said that, SA could still export maize to any lucrative destination despite the expectations of a poor harvest. But Zimbabwe also has foreign currency liquidity problems, which could make matters worse for the country, at least later this year.

If the situation worsens (which I hope it will not), I expect organisations such as the UN’s World Food Programme and other institutions to assist with food aid in the event of maize shortages. Such institutions would, perhaps, have sufficient resources to get maize supplies from origins such as Mexico, the US and Russia, among others.

Be that as it may, there is a need to revitalise the Zimbabwean agricultural sector in the medium to long term so that the country does not find itself in this position in the future. Aside from boosting food supplies, an improvement in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector would also boost the livelihoods of many people. About 67% of Zimbabwe’s population has employment in primary agriculture, according to 2014 data from the World Bank. So an improvement in agricultural yields would have far-reaching positive spin-offs.

Over time, the other industry the Zimbabwean authorities need to think about is agro-processing. To this end, there is a lot that can be learnt from SA and the technology it uses. However, this would have to start by addressing land governance, as this has been the challenge since the early 2000s due to ill-conceived land-reform policies.

Another important aspect would be for Zimbabwe to collaborate with SA’s farming sector, which would bring the knowledge and skills of modern farming and boost cross-border knowledge-sharing. From a South African perspective, the success of Zimbabwe is critical for regional economic and social stability —  but all this would need the political backing of the Zimbabwean government.

• Sihlobo, an agricultural economist, is head of research at the Agricultural Business Chamber of SA.



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