Last night I wrote a Twitter thread about Zimbabwe’s maize production recovery. The central message of it is that Zimbabwe will not be a basket case this year, thanks to an expansion in agricultural plantings and favourable rainfall.

In a recent report, the United States Department of Agriculture reaffirmed its view that Zimbabwe’s 2020/21 maize crop could amount to 2,7 million tonnes, almost 200% from the 907,628 tonnes produced in the previous season. Notably, this is the largest harvest since 1984/85. With Zimbabwe’s annual maize needs at roughly 2,0 million tonnes, there will be enough, and the country could even export if needs be, something that would be the first since 2001, when the country last exported maize.

These expectations of a good harvest last month prompted the Zimbabwean Agricultural Marketing Authority to stop issuing import permits for maize and maize meal to local grain millers.

As encouraging this news is – from a Zimbabwean perspective – a closer look into the data reveals essential insights. For example, Zimbabwe is poised to attain 2,7 million tonnes of maize harvest in a record area planting of 1,9 million hectares. This means that the yields are still meagre, estimated at 1,4 tonnes per hectare.

For comparison, if one drives across the borders of Zimbabwe into South Africa, the area plantings for maize in the same season is 2,8 million hectares. This is 47% larger than the area planted in Zimbabwe. Importantly, official estimates from South Africa suggest that maize production in the 2020/21 production year could amount to 16,2 million tonnes. This means the national average yield is roughly 5,8 tonnes per hectare — 307% higher than Zimbabwe’s average yield.

Of course, one of the important differentiators in yields between the two countries is the seed varieties that are used. As I have recently pointed out in an article on Project Syndicate, South Africa utilizes genetically engineered maize seeds (GE) while Zimbabwe uses non-genetically engineered seeds. This is a crucial matter contributing to yield differences, although not the only one.

For background, South Africa started planting GE maize seeds widely in the 2001-02 season. Prior to that, average maize yields were around 2.4 tonnes per hectare; in the 2019/20 production season, that figure was 5.9 tonnes per hectare. As a result, South Africa managed to produce nearly 20% of sub-Saharan Africa’s maize on only about 2.5 million hectares of land.

So, the point of this blog post is to say; Zimbabwe will be self-sufficient in maize this year, and that should be celebrated in a country that has plunged into starvation for so long. Still, Zimbabwe has a lot of work to improve its yields and some lessons for that lie across the border – in South Africa – for seeds and farming practices.

Follow me on Twitter (@WandileSihlobo). 

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