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February 06, 2012

The possible challenges posed by Zambia’s maize exports to its neighbors

Zambia sold 226,229 tonnes of maize to countries in the southern, eastern and central African sub regions, for the marketing season up to January 27 2012.

The Times of Zambia reports (01 February 2012) that the Food Reserve Agency, which effectively also serves as the country’s maize marketing body, sold a total of 444,641 tonnes of maize valued at US$69million to the local market and in exports.

The FRA is the government body charged with buying maize from Zambian farmers, maintaining a strategic reserve of the staple crop and exporting any surplus. Zambia has enjoyed a number of years of good maize harvests, harvesting 3 million tonnes in the 2010/11 season, up slightly from the previous season’s 2.8 million tones.

Late and erratic rains during the current (October 2011-May 2012) maize growing season throughout the sub-region have raised alarms of a maize deficits in several countries, including Malawi and Zambia, which in recent years have made up for the production shortfalls in countries like Zimbabwe and others. With almost the whole region having experienced late and erratic rains, there is a real risk of significant maize shortages in many countries.

The current doubtful maize-growing season will severely test the overall food security strategy of Zambia. Having overcome the basic issue of producing enough maize for local consumption plus a surplus over a number of seasons, the 2012 harvest season may show whether enough has been done to prepare for poor maize seasons. There will be a political, economic and food security implications if the maize harvest is much lower than expected and if the FRA does not have enough of a reserve in its silos to cover the difference.

Questions will be asked about the wisdom of having exported so much of the surplus in the good years. On the other hand, the FRA has many capacity constraints that limit how much of any season’s surplus it can soak up. One key such constraint is limited storage facilities, which in 2011 saw some exposed stored maize being rained on.

Agriculture minister Emmanuel Chenda dismisses such concerns. According to a January 19 2012 Reuters report, he said, "We are monitoring the situation very carefully to ensure that we don't end up importing maize. I think we are standing on very firm ground in
terms of food security. We had more than one million tonnes of surplus maize. We decided to export 600,000 tonnes because we didn't have storage space and so far we
have sold 200,000 tonnes,"

Maize is, unfortunately, almost the very definition of ‘food security’ in many African countries. The given reason of lack of storage space for selling off some of Zambia’s maize surplus is basically sound. And of course, maize is also an economic commodity like any other, so if there is extra of it to earn a country hard currency export earnings, that is always welcome. 

The Reuters report quotes a Zambian economist as alleging that the Zambian government was buying the maize at above market prices and selling it at reduced prices. He said this meant the government was effectively using "Treasury funds to subsidize the region."

The economist did not explain why Zambia would export its maize at a loss, assuming his charge was true. But it must be pointed out that an additional element of the mythical importance that maize has been allowed to assume is that for many African countries, being able to export maize is seen as a matter of great national prestige; a universally understood marker in maize-dependent countries of agricultural success.

All this will be turned on its head if Zambia finds itself needing to import maize in 2012. The ‘prestige’ of maize surplus will suddenly turn to the ‘embarrassment’ of maize shortages and imports.

This will be further complicated by the maize deficits that seem likely throughout the region in 2012. A regional maize shortage would mean more expensive exports from further away.

When there are good rains, Zambia seems to have found the answers to growing enough maize for its needs plus a surplus. However, 2012’s expected poor maize harvest may expose the many remaining challenges that need to be addressed for longer-term food security. Among them is more investment in grain storage facilities, as well as an expansion in irrigated versus rain-fed maize cultivation.

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