THE 2015-2016 El Nino-induced drought that plunged the entire Sadc region into a food security crisis won’t be the last to hit agriculture.
It’s almost certain that the southern African region will continue to have shocks in the future.
The major shock will be from the demand and supply side of the region’s main staple — maize.
The good rains that brought good cheer to the region can be short-lived.
Agricultural experts say the drought should be a teachable moment for countries to manage strategic grain reserves in an efficient and sustainable manner.
They say the 2015-2016 famine spell exposed the region’s weak management of strategic grain reserves.
“The regional drought triggered by an El Nino weather pattern was a major test for the region’s disaster preparedness, but equally the same, this season’s bumper grain crop must prepare us for future shocks,” said a University of Zimbabwe agronomist.
“We don’t know when they’ll occur, but we know they will. That means we need a strong grain reserve programme for the region that will be cascaded from regional, to national and more importantly to household level.”
It is evident that the region’s major grain producers — South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and a few others are set to get a bumper crop.
Africa’s largest economy — South Africa expects a 2017 maize surplus of about 17 million metric tonnes, Malawi (3,5 million), Zambia (3,9 million), Namibia (144 000) while Zimbabwe is expecting more than 2,5 million, according to preliminary figures from Sadc.
Zimbabwe and most other Sadc member states are still conducting final crop assessments and full figures are expected by July this year.
Details emerging from the Sadc Joint Extraordinary Meeting of Ministers responsible for Agriculture, Food Security, Fisheries and Aquaculture which was held in Swaziland recently show that South Africa registered an 83 percent increase in grain output, Malawi (38 percent), Zambia (32 percent) and Namibia 80 percent.
The 2015-2016 Sadc cereal production was 38,3 million metric tonnes, the lowest since 2011 while the current — for the few countries that have released their figures is already close to 30 million tonnes, something that indicates strongly that the region is set to surpass last year’s output by a significant margin.
“All this points to a better crop this year but the output could have been higher were it not for localised droughts, flooding and the fall armyworm outbreak,” the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation Sub-regional Coordinator for Southern Africa Mr David Phiri said.
He said preliminary assessments, conducted between mid-February and end of April 2017 show that about 356 000 hectares of crops were affected by the fall armyworm infestation in seven Sadc countries —Botswana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland and Zambia.
Zimbabwe’s north-western province was also affected by the fall armyworm outbreak.
“So far, preliminary assessments are pointing at crop losses ranging from two to 10 percent depending on the country,” Mr Phiri said.
In the 2015-2016 cropping season — Madagascar produced 4,5 million tonnes of grain, Mozambique (2,4 million), Tanzania (10 million), Swaziland (34 000) and Lesotho (27 000).
When final crop out figures from these are released, Mr Phiri said he was confident that the region’s cereal output would surpass the 38,3 million figure recorded last season when the region was ravaged by one of the worst droughts in half a century.
Indications that the whole region will do well are there but agricultural experts say last season’s food grain crisis should force the region to revamp its drought mitigation strategies.
The tragic famine experienced by most countries in the 2015-2016 season should bring to mind harrowing images from the region’s past famines.
Most countries declared drought a national disaster and governments and other international agencies responded generously by providing both food and other logistical support to people.
“Watching the heartbreaking images of emaciated children and loss of life should remind us to work out strategies for drought mitigation,” said the UZ agronomist.
“Healthy rains have given us a good crop and as a region we need to map out strategies for a regional strategic grain, strengthening national grain reserves and more crucially — strengthening community and household food grain reserves.”
Veteran agronomist Professor Mandivamba Rukuni concurred: “Our storage capacity is limited and we’re used to the colonial model of bulk storage. We need to move with the times and place more emphasis on grain storage at community level and not at national level.
“National level grain storage is not efficient and is quite problematic given the cost of storage, fumigation and other overheads. Zimbabwe and other Sadc countries need to work out clear and implementable strategies to stabilise production, prices and the distribution of maize.
“This is important to prevent price shocks — prices don’t have to go up and down excessively and affect the majority of the poor.”
Prof Rukuni said the current bumper crop should raise even more pertinent questions about how the region should prepare itself to respond to future drought shocks and how it strategically manages its grain stocks for its survival.
“Droughts are a frequent occurrence in the region and it is critically important to rethink strategies for handling grain in times of good harvest and for responding to famines,” he said.
“Governments need to intervene in a way that doesn’t affect the market too much, when they buy grain in surplus years. Government intervention has to be limited to being buyers of last resort rather than to be a competitor. When governments out-compete, this destabilises the pricing model.”
Prof Rukuni said debates on how best to manage strategic grain reserves were on-going across the world with experts differing on approaches.
He said Sadc countries needed to strike a balance between holding adequate strategic reserves and also converting part into cash, to try and manage costs related to storage.
“There’s no straight and clean answer to this,” Prof Rukuni said.
“Southern Africa is the only region on the continent where maize has become a political crop — a major area of contestation between governments and donors. Governments and donors have politicised the crop and I think greater emphasis must be placed on strengthening household food security — through proper post-harvest handling methods which can reduce losses and ensure food security for the poor.”
Concurred Mr Phiri: “The importance of food reserves can’t be underestimated. Governments need to help farmers reduce post-harvest losses, improve community and household level grain storage.
“With so much grain across the region, we’ll need proper grain storage facilities not only at national level but at community and household level too. The household level is even more important in all this.”
Strategic grain storage cost can be prohibitive at national level and Mr Phiri says governments need to invest more in storage facilities and fumigation while at the same time conducting strategic marketing to rid -off old grain to maintain stocks at sustainable levels.
“Does it make sense to keep a cash reserve for food grain or to keep the physical grain stock reserve? This debate has been going on for a long time,” he said.
“Sadc countries need to maintain strategic grain reserves whether its cash or food to cushion themselves in difficult times. The risks are there in both ways – if you keep too much grain – storage costs can be prohibitive and again if you keep cash – cash is fungible – it can be used for other pressing problems. There are dangers in all cases and countries need to strike a balance.”
The Food and Agriculture Organisation commended Zimbabwe and other Sadc countries for putting measures in place to boost crop production, something which has helped the region get a healthy crop output.
And despite the good rains that have brought good cheer to the region, strategic grain reserves are critical and help countries store sufficient grain for release onto the market in the event that supplies fall.
For this reason, Sadc countries need to dedicate funds every year to ensure there is backup maize in the silos that can be released in an emergency.
The grain reserve is a risk management tool and governments in the region need to be sensitive to this in as much as they do to security and other sensitive national matters. — Zimpapers Syndication