The reports of a potential La Niña event during the coming summer months presents mixed fortunes for Southern and East Africa’s agriculture. For parts of East Africa, the La Niña weather event typically correlates with below-average rainfall in the months between December and February, while Southern Africa experiences wetter conditions over the same period. What makes this concerning for East Africa is that this is a period just before the start of the summer grains planting, which occurs in February of each year. Therefore, a La Niña event would raise the risk of yet another poor agricultural harvest for countries in this region.
In the 2019/20 season, major grain-producing and consuming countries in East Africa, especially Kenya and Ethiopia, had mixed fortunes. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated Kenya’s 2019/20 maize production at 3.4 million tonnes, down by 11% y/y on the back of unfavourable weather conditions at the start of the season. With Kenya’s annual maize consumption at about 4.8 million tonnes, it implies that the country could require imports of about 1.4 million tonnes within the 2020/21 marketing year, which is still underway. This was a second consecutive season of large maize imports, as the previous season’s imports amounted to 900 000 tonnes. The prospects of a La Niña event means that Kenya could remain a net importer of maize for a third consecutive year.
By comparison, however, Ethiopia might have a fairly good maize season in 2019/20, despite the constant threat of locust invasions. The country’s 2019/20 maize production is estimated at a record of 8.6 million tonnes, up by just 1% y/y, according to data from the USDA. This will be sufficient to cover domestic annual consumption needs. Other countries in the region such as Tanzania and Uganda are projected to have roughly balanced supplies for the year. The challenge, however, could be in the upcoming 2020/21 production season.
With Southern Africa experiencing inverse weather conditions to East Africa, as previously noted, forecasts appear somewhat positive. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s increased the probability of La Niña to 70% — roughly three times the normal likelihood – which could lead to increased moisture and potentially higher yields in the 2020/21 production season (see Exhibit 1).
Already in the 2019/20 production season, South Africa and Zambia had bumper harvests in major crops and various horticultural produce. These countries collectively have surpluses of over two million tonnes of maize, which are sufficient to offset maize shortfalls across both Southern and East African countries in the 2020/21 marketing year, primarily for Kenya and Zimbabwe.
Aside from the climatic conditions, there are two additional risk factors for East and Southern Africa’s agricultural sector. First, desert locust swarms still pose a serious threat in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan, and could stall the agricultural recovery if not effectively controlled. At the end of August 2020, aerial control operations using biopesticides were underway across East Africa. The progress of these control operations over the coming months will be critical determinants of the success of the next season which begins in February 2021. The weather will also have an impact on the locust spread.
Second, the COVID-19 pandemic remains a major risk for agriculture in several countries, specifically the impact of containment measures amongst smallholder farmers and informal markets, which thrive on the movement of people. With an exception of South Africa, the official numbers of the COVID-19 infections remain relatively low in some African countries. It is unclear whether the infections will remain under control in the coming months or if there is going to be a second wave, as we have witnessed in various countries.
In the event of a renewed surge in infections, especially during the planting period, which is from October in Southern Africa and from February in East Africa, there could be disruptions to field activities. Disruptions could emanate from government regulations and containment measures, such as lockdowns and other strict social distancing measures.
With highly mechanized farm sectors are likely to be less affected by containment measures, South Africa appears to be the only country in Southern and Eastern Africa with significant parts of the agricultural economy with a level of mechanization that might not be disrupted by social distancing regulations. This implies that agricultural sectors across the region are at a higher risk. The same is true for informal agriculture and food markets, which are occupy a dominant share in various African countries.
Ultimately, climate and pandemic risks could weigh on agricultural output and farm profitability in the 2020/21 season, and in turn the livelihoods of those who are directly and indirectly dependent on the sector. That said, the climate and the prognosis of the pandemic in the coming months remain highly uncertain. Therefore, these risks warrant close monitoring in the weeks and months ahead.
Exhibit 1: La Niña prospects
Source: Australian Bureau of Meteorology
Note: My good friend, Dr Tinashe Kapuya, contributed to this Morning Note. Dr Kapuya is an agricultural economist and currently leads Value Chain analytics division at the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP).
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The locusts which emerged in East Africa towards the end of last year remain a serious challenge for the agricultural sector. This is specifically the case in Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia, according to reports from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Over half a million hectares across these countries have been affected by locusts, and thus destroying crops and pastures. Hence, it is unsurprising that there are rising fears of potential food shortage if the spread of the locusts is not controlled.
These swarms of locusts caught the region by surprise as they are not a normal occurrence, with the United Nations noting that a spread this big was last seen 70 years ago. The climatic conditions are, in part, a contributor to the spread of the locusts in this region. Various reports suggest that the locusts thrive in periods after heavy rains, which is precisely the situation in parts of East Africa. This also comes at a challenging time when the financial resources to fight the spread of the locusts are limited as funds are diverted to fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Hence, there is the risk that if the spread is not controlled, the locusts could lay eggs which might lead to an even larger swarm of locusts in the next season, further negatively affecting the agricultural sector and livelihoods of those mainly dependent on the sector. The FAO estimates that roughly US$302 million is required to control the locust spread in the East Africa region.
While this swarm of locusts is a worry for the entire region, the major grain-consuming countries in this region, Kenya and Ethiopia, face slightly different prospects. Consider Ethiopia’s 2020 maize production, which is estimated at a record of 8.6 million tonnes, up by 1% y/y, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This means the country’s maize fields have thus far not been as hard hit by the locusts as other countries in the region. Most importantly, this will cover the domestic annual consumption needs.
By comparison, the USDA forecasts Kenya’s 2020 maize production at 3.4 million tonnes, down by 11% y/y. The decline, however, is not mainly caused by the locusts, rather expectations of poor yields on the back of unfavourable weather conditions at the start of the season. With Kenya’s annual maize consumption at about 4.7 million tonnes, the aforementioned production estimate means the country could require to import about 1.3 million tonnes within the 2020/21 marketing year.
For countries like Kenya, the locusts are in fact, affecting the sector in a year that staple grain conditions were not favourable. This raises the possibility that if there isn’t a strict control through applications of pesticides by spraying and other techniques, we could as well see reports of crop damages and increased import needs.
Fortunately, this year, the Southern Africa region has large maize supplies which should help fill the shortage in Kenya and other African countries which could experience a maize shortfall. As I have previously pointed out in Business Day, South Africa and Zambia could emerge as key maize suppliers to the Southern and East Africa region in the 2020/21 marketing year. Both countries are expecting their second-largest maize harvests on record within the 2019/20 production season (which corresponds with the 2020/21 marketing year).
In the case of South Africa, the expected harvest is 15.5 million tonnes, against domestic consumption of roughly 11.0 million tonnes. Whereas, Zambia‘s 2019/20 maize harvest is estimated at 3.4 million tonnes against domestic maize consumption of 2.2 million tonnes. This means South Africa could have at least 2.7 million tonnes of maize for export markets within the 2020/21 season, which is up 89% y/y, while, Zambia could have a million tonnes of maize for exports, up from 100 000 tonnes in the previous year.
Nevertheless, the key focus for the East Africa region will have to be finding financial resources to acquire all required pesticides, and various spraying equipment needed to control the spread of the locusts. This should be a priority to mitigate any potential breeding the locusts could do, which could lead to yet another outbreak next year. On a brighter side, the available maize supplies in South Africa and Zambia will help cushion the expected shortfall in the near term.
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Although the past few months have been a struggle to secure grain supplies for Southern and East Africa, other parts of the world are in better shape and could help offset the shortfall. No indicator spells this out as clearly as the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations’ (FAO) Global Grains Price Index which averaged 158 points in September 2019, down by 4% year-on-year because of large global supplies.
The International Grains Council (IGC) forecasts 2019/20 global grains production at 2.2 billion tonnes, which is 1% higher than the previous season. This is boosted by increased wheat and rice production, which have overshadowed the decline in the maize and soybean harvest.
At the start of the 2019/20 production season, an increase in grain production seemed like a pipe dream because of excessively wet weather conditions and delayed plantings in the US. In addition, when planting finally happened, there were fears of potentially poor yields. While these tough production conditions are what has resulted in a decline in global maize and soybean production, now estimated at 1.1 billion tonnes and 342 million tonnes, down by 3% and 6% from the 2018/19 season, respectively, the magnitude of a decline is not as huge as initially feared.
The improved weather conditions over the past few months and also the use of higher-yielding and short-period growing varieties of seeds are amongst the factors that lessened the impact of late plantings and wet conditions on US maize and soybean producing areas.
Global wheat production, which fell notably in 2018/19 season, recovered by 4% year-on-year to 764 million tonnes in 2019/20 season – the largest harvest ever. There is a notable improvement in production in all the major wheat-producing countries, with the exception of Kazakhstan, whose harvest is set to fall by 18% from the 2018/19 season. This increased wheat supply, and the decline in prices thereafter, drew back some users who had switched to maize in the previous season because of higher prices. The 2019/20 global wheat consumption is now estimated at 757 million tonnes, up by 3% year-on-year, according to data from IGC.
Despite the increase in consumption, global wheat prices are still under pressure, down by 15% year-on-year on 03 October 2019, trading at US$206 per tonne. A more comprehensive picture of the overall global grain price dynamics is illustrated by the aforementioned Global Grains Price Index.
The African continent, as a net importer of wheat, will benefit from the current lower prices. IGC forecasts Africa’s 2019/20 wheat imports at 51 million tonnes, up by 5% from the previous season. The leading importers include Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Africa.
From a South African perspective, the increase in global wheat production comes at a time when it’s much needed. South Africa’s 2019/20 wheat imports could amount to 1.6 million tonnes, up by 14% from the 2018/19 season (which ended in September 2019) because of the expected poor domestic wheat harvest.
While this is beneficial for South African consumers in the near term, it also means that South African farmers might not be compensated for lower production by an increase in prices.
South Africa is a net importer of wheat, which means prices are already at import parity levels, and its movements there will largely be directed by developments in the global wheat market rather than domestic factors.
Regarding the entire Southern and East Africa region, Kenya, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are the countries that are expected to import notable volumes of grains in the 2019/20 marketing year.
Estimated maize imports for these countries collectively will be at least 2 million tonnes. Imports thus far have largely been from Tanzania and South Africa. There are reports of ships that have left Mexico heading to Mozambique, but at this point, it is unclear how much maize will be there. In addition, wheat imports for the above-mentioned three countries could amount to 3 million tonnes.
The upside is that the grains shortfall in Southern and East Africa occurs in a season where there are generally large global supplies to cushion the countries in need. It will, however, be tough to source white maize imports. Outside of the African continent, Mexico is the only key producer. Meanwhile, wheat will largely be available in the global market.
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