Southern Africa Faces Impending Maize Shortages as Crop Damages Mount Due to Weather Changes

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Countries in the southern Africa region could face maize shortages in the near future due to weather changes, a situation that might put millions of households in dire food insecurity as a result of crop damages.

According to Wandile Sihlobo, the Chief Economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz), although the 2023 -24 summer crop season started favourably across the region, with excellent rains from October 2023 through to January 2024, the conditions have changed and now there is a problem at hand.

“We see that in a number of countries in the region, there are already some crop damages that are being reported,” said Sihlobo who is also a Research Associate at the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at Rhodes University, South Africa.

In South Africa, there are already reports indicating that in the western regions of the country, central regions, and even to the east, there are some patches of maize crop damage meaning there is dire need of rainfall.

The crop estimate committee in the county came out at the end of February, saying there could be around 14 million tons of maize production this year, however, the country has not received any rainfall since which means that there is continuous damage being witnessed in some of the fields.

“This is to say that there’s a great uncertainty about how much maize harvest South Africa will have this year, which is for 2023 -24 production season,” said Sihlobo adding that the challenge is not only in South Africa.

Crop damages in Zambia and Zimbabwe

In Zambia, recent reports from the government indicate that roughly a million hectares of maize have been damaged in that country because of their excessive heat and dryness while Zimbabwe, the official reports are indicating that over two million people may be in hunger because of the damages that have been done in their fields by the nano-induced dryness.

This happens when Zambia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe are known to be some of the major maize producers in the southern Africa region, meaning there is a heavy challenge at hand with regards to maize supplies in this region.

Sihlobo says it may not be for the near term, but probably somewhere towards the end of the year because in the near term, whatever the harvest during the winter season may be able to cushion households for a little bit.

“I fear more for the likes of Zambia, Zimbabwe. and some of the small neighbouring countries like Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, that there may actually be supply constraints of maize later on in the year and going into next year.”

Policy considerations

The researcher now says there is need for policy makers to start thinking about the situation to mark some of the instruments and policy ideas that should be considered in anticipation of a difficult future.

“Even if over the next few weeks we do get rainfall that may save some of the crops and put us in a better position than what I am currently signaling but I do think that the policy makers should already be planning for that,” said Sihlobo.

According to him, there are four considerations that the regional governments should adopt. These include, for instance, avoiding putting export restrictions or price caps on the maize in an effort to protecting the domestic consumer since by so doing there will be artificially depressed prices for consumer benefit in the near term.

Although this will put farmers under severe strain and de-incentivize their production for the following season but the country has to really learn on the painful way but with real South African term, which always says the cure for higher prices is higher prices because at the end of the day, when the rainfall finally comes, the farmers will have an incentive to plant more.

“This is, of course, assuming that we may see further upward adjustment on prices, which at the moment we’re already witnessing, but more mildly, not really a significant upside on prices, but in anticipation that in a difficult future, those may materialize.”

“I do think that we have to allow some flexibility on the market there and also not to keet or restrict the exports across the region.”

The second consideration is that any interventions to support really has to be at a household level, where it can said that how can the countries support the households.

And this will be done mainly by the governments that have the fiscal space, to think about various instruments they can do so that they can lessen the hunger challenges in the region.

The other consideration, particularly by governments like Zimbabwe, that are really under strain is to start engaging with the likes of the World Food Programme, so that they can think about where they can source their maize supplies from and what’s the size of their needs could be so that these organizations could start to put them on the list and earmark them for assistance if needs arises.

Lastly, regional governments working with the private sector really need to work and engage countries such as Mexico on how much maize supplies they can have for exports and how can they coordinate this in case their region needs some supplies, said Sihlobo.

“We know that white maize in the world market is very scarce, but I am putting these policy prepositions not to induce fear but looking at the reports we hear from farmers, it is good to plan ahead in case of any eventuality.”