Note: I’ve recently opened a YouTube channel, which I hope to use frequently in 2020. Click here for a short clip summarizing the essay below.

Last year I applauded the Zimbabwean government for having grasped the urgency of potential maize shortage in time and outlining a plan to address it. This is after Joseph Gondo, chief director of Zimbabwe’s agriculture ministry, told Bloomberg on June 6, 2019, that the country’s Grain Marketing Board, a state-owned agency, would float an international tender to import 750 000 tonnes of maize.

While this was set to be the largest maize import volume since 2016/17 season, it was somewhat less than what I thought the country needed to import in order to fulfil the shortage in the 2019/20 marketing year – a million tonnes. Nonetheless, I was encouraged by the proactiveness of the government.

The need for maize imports was caused by a poor domestic harvest, which fell by 53% year-on-year in 2018/19 production season to 800 000 tonnes, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The dearth of credible statistics of maize trade in Zimbabwe made it difficult for one to follow the planned import activity. But the news of food shortages in a country that has dominated headlines over the past few weeks show that the Grain Marketing Board didn’t really import the 750 000 tonnes that were planned on June 6, 2019. Had it been imported; Zimbabwe wouldn’t have faced maize (and food) shortages by now.

On January 3, 2020, Zimbabwean President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, told Bloomberg that his country will import maize Mexico, Ukraine and South Africa to help ease pressure in the country. But again, there were no details on whether this was the maize that would be supplied by organizations such as the World Food Programme or private businesses, or the government agency, Grain Marketing Board.

Mexico had about 1.5 million tonnes of maize for export markets in the 2019/20, according to data from the U.S. Department of agriculture. Meanwhile, in the same season, South Africa had about 1.1 million tonnes, according to our estimates. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that Ukraine had the largest volume of about 25 million tonnes of maize for the export market in the 2019/20 season.

It is unclear how much maize Mexico and Ukraine have exported thus far within their 2019/20 allocations. In the second week of December 2019, South Africa had already exported 67% of the allocated maize for exports in the 2019/20 season which ends in April 2020. Zimbabwe was one of the smallest buyers, having imported only 32 124 tonnes of maize from South Africa between May and December 2019.

This means that South Africa and possibly Mexico have now relatively tighter stocks compared to mid-year when it became clear that Zimbabwe would need to import a large volume of maize. Had the sales been facilitated then, Zimbabwe would have found abundant maize supplies in the market. The coming weeks will be interesting to watch where Zimbabwe sources its maize, and at what price.

Another likely source is Tanzania, which on September 20, 2019,  sent its first consignment of maize to Zimbabwe, about 1 200 tonnes.

What worries me more is that the current struggle of maize shortage in Zimbabwe could be prolonged. The 2019/20 production year crop outlook points to a possibility of another poor harvest because of a second consecutive year of below-normal rainfall. Furthermore,  a recent report from the Group on Earth Observations Global Agricultural Monitoring Initiative indicates a high probability of below-normal rainfall in Southern Africa between December 2019 and February 2020. This is a period where maize crop needs higher moisture as it would be at pollination.

As these weather indications appear, it would be better this time around if the Zimbabwean government and the World Food Programme do no only notice and make public statements about the possible dangers of this scenario, but plan ahead. As things stand, it is plausible that the discussion of Zimbabwe’s food shortage could persist until the first quarter of 2021.

Written for and first published on Business Day on 07 January 2020.

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