Southern Africa battling El Nino with potential reduction in crop volumes

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While the Southern African agricultural sector was dealing with a “moving target”, and the extent of the impact of the heatwave and dryness on crops changed daily, it was clear that the whole region had taken strain and would see a significant reduction in the volume of the crop produced, says the Agricultural Business Chamber(Agbiz)

With Zambia potentially out of the export market this year, the pressure was said to now be on South Africa to supply Zimbabwe.

Still, suppose all the required maize was a white variety, South Africa may not be in a position to provide Zimbabwe with the total required volume, particularly when considering that the likes of Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Madagascar, and even Zambia would also require maize imports to supplement their domestic annual needs.

The agricultural organisations chief economist Wandile Sihlobo said, although the domestic hunger challenges may rise in some countries, as had already been seen in the forecasts in Zimbabwe and Zambia, the governments in the region must be careful about their response policies and programmes to these potential challenges.

He said there were several key points they should consider, such as avoiding export restrictions and maize price caps.

“While restricting exports seems like a good approach for the near term to cushion households, such an intervention disincentivises production for the next year as the farm-level prices would be artificially depressed. This is particularly important as farmers are not protected from higher input costs and pay world prices for all the imported inputs such as fertilizers, agrochemicals and some seeds,” Sihlobo said.

He added that the interventions should be at the household level through various support packages with fiscal space used to implement such programmes, the regional governments should also engage with the World Food Programme to prepare to assist the least well-off countries with maize imports from the world market and the governments should also engage, collectively with the private sector, the likes of Mexico that produce white maize, to assess if they would have space to export to the Southern Africa region if the need arises.

Agbiz said last week, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe published reports indicating a potential decline in grain harvest because of intense El Niño-induced dryness. It added that in South Africa, a recent farmers’ survey by Grain South Africa showed severe grain and oilseed production challenges in various patches across the country, which have probably worsened in the past week since the survey was completed on February 21.

The Crop Estimates Committee (CEC) also fears the possible decline in the summer grains and oilseed harvest. In its first production estimate for the 2023/24 season, the committee placed the summer grains and oilseed harvest at 17.4 million tons, down 13% y/y. “This is primarily a function of lower expected yields rather than an area reduction. This is an overall production figure, and the decline varies crop by crop. Still, a positive aspect of South Africa is that the expected harvest still covers the domestic consumption, leaving some volume for exports, albeit significantly down from the previous seasons.”

Sihlobo said the weather forecast only showed prospects of widespread rainfall in the week of March 11, which may be too late for various summer crop-producing regions where the heat was already damaging the crop, mainly in the western and central regions of the country, as rainfall in these areas was not as intense even from the start of the season. “Still, if the expected rain in the second week of March materializes across South Africa, other commodities, outside the summer grains and oilseed, would see better production conditions and improvement.”

Agbiz said there has not been a lot of talk about other value chains outside summer grains and oilseed, primarily because of higher dam levels from the past few years and earlier rains in the season. He said with all of South Africa’s commercial fruit and vegetable production under irrigation, the improved water levels in the dams assisted farmers in coping with the current heatwave, provided the load-shedding was minimal. “The livestock industry is still in a relatively better place as the grazing veld has generally improved, and there were large maize and soybean supplies from the 2022/23 season. The field crops are primarily rainfed. For example, only about 20% of maize, 15% of soybean, and 34% of sugarcane are produced under irrigation, leaving a large part of the crop at the mercy of the natural rains, which have been scarce since the start of February.”