Zambia expects surplus maize production despite severe drought

Zimbabwean farmer digs out weeds from a maize crop.
Zimbabwean farmer digs out weeds from a maize crop. Photo: Howard Burditt/Reuters

Zambia expects maize production to increase this year, pushing stocks into surplus and reversing an earlier warning that it may need to import the food staple, the country's agriculture minister has told RFI. Neighbouring countries have been suffering drastic food supply problems with South Africa going through its worst drought in more than 100 years.


Zambia expects surplus of maize production despite severe drought

As recently as March, Zambian Agriculture Minister Given Lubinda predicted a shrinking harvest this year due to erratic rains.

The government was considering importing maize to cover a potential deficit, he said and, faced with food shortages, Zambian officials had even banned the export of corn and corn products on 5 April.

The latest announcement came as a surprise to many people in Zambia and the rest of the region. The current El Nino weather phenomenon has been affecting the region for a while, with over 60 million people suffering its consequences, according to the United Nations.

"We've had extended rain, not to say heavy rains but the rainy season extended into the month of April, during the drier season, so it was unexpected," Sinya Mbale, from the Conservation Farming Unit in Zambia, told RFI. "So the farmers that have planted late have replanted their fields with further crops

"In Malawi and Zimbabwe, there's been significant reduction in the productivity because of the drought which has been very severe, as opposed to Zambia, where rainfall patterns switched around February, rains that have supported the crops."

He pointed out that most of the farmers were turning to conservation farming, which has contributed to this increase.

The agriculture minister said that he was very excited by this turn of events. Maize production went up by 20.4 percent compared to last year, according to his figures.

"The Zambian farmers are extremely thankful and optimistic, they even went into second planting and the crops survived very well. Some farmers in the northern part of the country managed to have that from their third crops," Lubinda told RFI.

"Another reason is the very prudent agricultural policies being pursued by the Patriotic Front government. In the last farming season, the government made sure that everything was delivered to farmers in good time, even before the rain, so the farmers were able to plant in good time. Also, the policies of open borders, when it comes to the exports of agricultural commodities, that encouraged more farmers to invest in agricultural production."

Lubinda said higher crop yields would help to boost production to 2.87 million metric tonnes from 2.62 million tonnes last year, even with a smaller area of cultivated land and that the country had 635,000 tonnes more than was required for domestic consumption in the 2016-17 marketing season, expecting their exports of maize to go up as well.

Governement officials said that Zambia’s increased maize production should help boost economic growth, which slumped to the slowest pace in 17 years last year.

However, this drastic turnover has come as a surprise to development and climate experts, who remain very cautious.

"You go into the rural areas where food is being produced, they will tell you that their crops have dried out," Danny Simatele, a professor of Development and Environmental Studies at South Africa's University of Witwatersrand, told RFI. "But one has to understand the context in which such statement is being made. This year, Zambia will hold its general elections. And it is important to understand that most of these statements that we're hearing are coming from the political arena."

He pointed out that it was important that Zambians were told that the coming harvest would be good, that this was going to reduce the cost of maize, which is Zambia's most important staple product.

"There are a lot of political aspects connected to that because people in Zambia are more than happy to hear that because their cost of living has gone very high," Simatele said. "So this is some kind of reassurance from the leaders to assure them that this is temporary and things will get better in the coming year."

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning