China bought 108 104 tonnes of maize from South Africa in the last week of March and the first few weeks of April 2023. This activity formed part of South Africa’s maize exports in the 2022/23 marketing year.

Importantly, this was not the first time China bought South African maize, but the volumes were always small in the past. For example, China’s maize imports from South Africa averaged 3 780 tonnes per annum over the past ten years.

It was the first time we saw such large volumes in recent memory (they probably just discovered our great quality maize – nicely dried in the Southern African sun). This is primarily because South African maize is currently competitively priced and will continue to be in demand from significant global buyers such as China.

Still, if we consider South Africa’s 2022/23 total maize exports of 3,64 million tonnes, China’s recent purchase of 108 104 tonnes is a relatively small volume. South Africa’s leading export markets for maize include Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam,  Mexico, Italy, South Korea, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and various markets within the African continent.

We should also remember that China is a large maize producer, accounting for 22% of global maize production, an average of 277 million tonnes. Still, because of their significant usage, China imports maize from the world market.

Over the past three seasons, China’s maize imports averaged 25 million tonnes a year. The leading suppliers of maize to China included the United States, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Russia and Kazakhstan, and South Africa.

So, I have doubts that South Africa’s recent maize exports to China are some political posture, somewhat attempting to replace the U.S., as some media houses have argued.

One has to appreciate that the U.S. maize exports to China averaged 17 million tonnes yearly in the past two seasons. This far exceeds South Africa’s total maize production of 15,9 million tonnes this year.

In good seasons, South Africa’s maize exports are usually just over 3 million tonnes to a range of markets I mentioned above. Hence, I believe China’s recent maize imports from South Africa were a general market activity, i.e., supply diversification, and we shouldn’t read too much into it.

Of course, as a proudly South African working in agriculture, I am always supportive of expanding our agricultural exports to China and keen on seeing more of our high-quality fruits, grains and beef on the plates of Chinese consumers.

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