Locust crisis

Locust crisis

The authorities in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Uganda are struggling to control the spreading desert locust infestation. Recent reports from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) suggest that the situation there remains “extremely alarming”. Over the weekend, the Democratic Republic of Congo was the latest to report an infestation of the desert locust, which seem to have crossed over from Uganda with heavy winds.

This is a threat to food security as these locusts are damaging field crops and grazing fields. The FAO estimates that the locusts have spread over nearly half a million hectares across the aforementioned countries. What’s more, about 11.9 million people, which heavily rely on agriculture, are already experiencing acute food insecurity in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. The locusts will exacerbate this already bad situation.

To zoom into Kenya, the country already has a fragile food system. Kenya experienced drought in 2019 which saw its staple maize harvest falling 15% y/y to 3.4 million tonnes, which is well below the annual maize consumption of 4.7 million tonnes. This saw the country needing maize imports of 1.3 million tonnes in a marketing year that ends in April 2020 in order to meet its annual maize requirements.

I had hoped that 2020 could be a recovery year and Kenya’s maize import needs could be reduced. The spreading desert locust, however, threatens to keep the country a basket case; along with Ethiopia, Somalia and Uganda which currently have millions of people in acute food insecurity.

Overall, the spread of these locusts is evidence that the local authorities are struggling to control them. This then calls for international interventions – a view the FAO has also expressed here. This is indeed a locust crisis.

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Zimbabwe’s maize import plan falls short

Zimbabwe’s maize import plan falls short

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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Zimbabwe’s maize import plan falls short

Food Insecurity in Zimbabwe

Droughts or floods always have a devastating impact on agriculture. But the second-round effects on livelihoods are manageable in countries that are economically stable, depending of course on the magnitude of the impact. However, for countries, with economic instability and low capability of mitigation, there is usually a disaster months after the extreme weather events.

The latter is precisely what we are witnessing in Zimbabwe at the moment. For context; Zimbabwe’s maize prospects — their staple crop — are not in good shape because of a drought which delayed plantings at the start of the 2018/19 production season. And when it finally rained, it became rather excessive, as was witnessed during Cyclone Idai at the start of the year.

The maize harvest is currently estimated at 800 000 tonnes, down by 53% from the previous year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The hardships emanating from this poor harvest, exacerbated by unstable economic conditions are being felt across the country.

The World Food Programme now estimates that more than one-third of Zimbabwe’s rural population (or some 3.6 million people) will be food insecure by October 2019. And by January 2020, the figure is set to increase sharply to 5.5 million.

Had Zimbabwe been an economically stable country (with efficient markets, policy and infrastructure), the effects of lower agricultural output would have been buffered by imports, and government assistance to a certain extent.

But this is not the case in Zimbabwe. The economy, political environment and state resources remain fragile. The maize markets cannot function efficiently, as the State’s hand is deep in the maize bag. Just last month, the Zimbabwean government designated the State-owned Grain Marketing Board as a sole buyer of maize from local farmers. Those who attempt to sell their produce outside this arrangement could face a penalty.

Now, while the government might have introduced this measure as a way of ensuring consumers’ well-being after food price inflation galloped to 126.43% y/y in May 2019 (I have discussed this here). It is unlikely to work.

Farmers are withholding their produce, instead of delivering it to the Grain Marketing Board. This leads to the scarcity of maize in the market, and will inevitably not address the government’s concerns of consumer well-being (affordable food).

Regardless of where Zimbabwe’s domestic maize policy ends, the country still needs to import about a million tonnes of maize in order to fulfil its annual needs. It is not clear if this import activity has started yet, as the local authorities have not published any data.

Also, observing from South Africa’s export data, which would be one of the key countries Zimbabwe could source supplies from, Zimbabwe has, thus far, not imported any maize from South Africa within the 2019/20 marketing year which started in May 2019.

Now that the Grain Marketing Board has been designated as a sole buyer of maize from local farmers. It is unclear if this policy will influence private businesses’ maize import activity.

One organisation that might sure make maize purchases on behalf of Zimbabweans in the near term is the World Food Programme. The organisation has recently indicated that it will boost its humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe through to April 2020.

South Africa, Zambia and Mexico could be the potential suppliers of white maize to Zimbabwe. Aside from white maize, there are a number of countries that can potentially supply yellow maize to Zimbabwe, with the most likely ones being Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine and the United States.

These are all initiatives that are yet to materialise. As things stand, there is looming food insecurity in Zimbabwe.

Written for the Daily Maverick.

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