Do maize imports during a bumper harvest make sense in Zimbabwe?

No sane analyst can trust anything that comes out of the Zimbabwean government when it comes to statistics. Over the past 20 years, the government of Zimbabwe has ensured that the flow of information is restricted and controlled, and data is sanitized before being published for public consumption.  The vagueness and opaqueness of the information systems has ensured that no one, except a select few, gets to really know the true statistics, which is why maize production figures for the 2016/17 season have been received with a grain of salt.

It is for this very reason that Zimbabwe’s bumper harvest is now under intense scrutiny. In the aftermath of what was touted as a hugely successful season, the government sanctioned “command agriculture” project was pitched as a key driver to the country’s projected output of 2.2 million tons. The last time Zimbabwe produced a maize crop of comparable size was 18 years ago, when the country produced 2.1 million tons in 1999. Since this government is known for its notoriety for propaganda, it was not long before people started questioning the reported maize bumper harvest, with reports suggesting that large stocks of maize imports are still coming into the country. There are also reports that maize imports into Zimbabwe were banned, but the extent to which this ban is being enforced remains to be seen. I will deal with this point later.

The key question I want to reflect on first concerns why Zimbabwe is importing maize in a bumper harvest. The rationale for maize imports appears to be counter-intuitive to many people, and in fact, re-enforces the trust deficit between the citizens and a government which already lacks credibility. So the question of whether the so called bumper harvest is real or imagined is only natural because the very programme which has been identified as a key driver of the alleged bumper harvest was also largely secretive. For instance, the process of selecting command agriculture beneficiaries as well as the funding that was appropriated to them was not made public to all.  If it wasn’t for the public spat between Professor Jonathan Moyo and Vice President Emmerson Munangagwa – which subsequently led to certain documents being made public –  then some of us would never have known some of the details around command agriculture. And so, if there is a lack of transparency on how the programme itself was implemented, how can we trust the information that is being reported about its impact?

Having said that, it is important to know that grain imports amid a bumper harvest is neither an anomaly nor entirely unheard of. Some of the largest maize producers in the region and indeed the world, import maize regardless of how much maize they produce. It is normal for markets to import maize while having a surplus. For instance, South Africa has produced more than its national requirement in 16 of the last 20 seasons, and in many of those seasons, South Africa continued to import maize anyway, regardless of how large the harvest is.

That is not to say that South Africa has never had a period in which the country did not import maize. In fact, South Africa had null imports in three of the last 20 seasons, but that was due to market dynamics that made business sense to procure maize locally, rather than importing. It was not due to some government ban, as is the case with Zimbabwe. Rather, market participants have enough economic freedom to source maize from wherever they want, and in a surplus season, traders are free to “bargain-hunt”.

The problem with the Zimbabwean situation is that the government has a knack for disrupting the market, such that it never matures to a point where production can be competitive, and trading is free from ad hoc distortions. It’s always some kind of useless (and in fact harmful) elite-driven programme that usually benefits a privileged few at the expense of the market. And so in this case, we have politicians that benefited from free inputs out of a command agriculture project, who are now implementing policies that force the market to buy their own maize. If that is not a whole load of rubbish, then nothing is.

So the essence of this discussion can be summarized in three key points:

  • Regardless of how anyone might feel about command agriculture, there is no reason for people to suggest that maize imports in a bumper season is abnormal.
  • Whether the impact of command agriculture was over-sold or not, the idea that if a country has a bumper harvest then no import maize should be allowed into that country is nonsensical.
  • However, that does not mean that the programme itself should not be criticized on the basis of its flaws. I still think that command agriculture is utter nonsense in as much as maize import bans are rubbish policies that only serve to extend resource pillage, rather than promote food security.

How will Africa resolve crop losses?

I was in Malawi for their National Agricultural Fair during the week of the 14th of August, and my conversations with private sector, research scientists and non-governmental organizations gave me a fuller appreciation of the typical challenges in Africa. The two biggest problems facing the African continent thus far have been the extraordinarily low yields and the exorbitant levels of post-harvest losses. Usually, these two issues are addressed as separate conversations. However, while that is conceptually acceptable, both issues ought to be discussed simultaneously in practice – at least from a policy perspective. The reason why it is important to make low yields and high pre- and post-harvest losses part of a single collective discussion is because addressing one and not the other will likely lead to an insignificant outcome. If farmers produce more but neither have the mechanism nor the infrastructure to store their crop, they will still lose their commodities and remain food insecure. So the continent has a twin-problem that will require, at the very least, a two-pronged solution. How bad is the situation in Africa?

From a yield perspective, sub-Saharan Africa is anchored at the bottom of the trend – with average maize yields that are as low as 0.5 tons/ha and as high as 2.8 tons/ha for the continent’s better performers. The average for sub-Saharan Africa is less than 1.9 tons/ha. South African maize yields are of course, an exception, averaging 4.2 tons/ha. However, in other progressive parts of the world, average maize yields are in double digit territory. The United States for instance, averages 10 tons/ha to 11tons/ha. What this means is that sub-Saharan Africa needs to quadruple its maize yields to be able to catch up with the rest of the world.

On the face of it, the statistics above speak to smallholder farmers’ lack of access to high-yielding maize varieties. Ironically, sub-Saharan Africa has been producing numerous higher-yielding maize seed varieties, so the problem of access has little to do with the availability of seed technology. Rather, it has more to do with the poorly developed maize seed supply chains, which often fail to ensure that such seed is made available at the right place and the right time to farmers. The inconsistency of supply means that smallholder farmers find their recycled maize seed to be a more reliable source of seed. How do we fix this? Dr Ed Mabaya has noted that the problem within the seed supply chain has a lot to do with marketing aspects of it. In many instance, smallholder farmers neither know these higher yielding varieties nor are they made aware of the seed’s potential to improve output. So addressing the logistics and marketing of seed can play a critical role in helping to quadruple maize yields.

From a pre- and post-harvest loss point of view, it is estimated that smallholder farmers lose anything between 15% and 30% of their grain production. This is due to a number of reasons which include poor timing of harvesting, inappropriate harvesting practices, adverse weather conditions after physiological maturity of the crop, the crop’s exposure to invasive pests and wild animals, and losses due to poor storage infrastructure.

However, stand-out factors are pest infestations and moisture induced rotting and aflotoxin accumulation – which have become the focus of attention with serious impacts of the False Army Worm (FAW) in the former and human health concerns in the latter.

If we take 15% as the benchmark for food losses, then overall, pre-harvest losses account for 6% out of the 15%, while storage accounts for 6% to 8%. The balance is due to losses during threshing, shelling, drying and transportation – all of which are inevitable in any given production system. The two biggest issues, from a pre- and post-harvest loss perspective, is therefore centered around the actual harvesting practices and storage. Previous estimates reveal that pre- and post-harvest losses in sub-Saharan Africa translate to US$4 billion per year. So how can this be averted? Two conflicting schools of thought argue that pre- and post-harvest aspects should not receive similar levels of attention due to differences in relative importance. Some argue that more attention should go toward addressing pre-harvest practices that lead to mycotoxin infestation because there is sufficient storage to handle existing output. Others argue that storage remains critical and should therefore continue to be expanded in addition to on-going efforts to pre-harvest issues. However, data already shows that pre- and post-harvest losses are almost evenly split in terms of their contribution to overall losses. Therefore, it is critical to address both at the same time. Moreover, there is no evidence so far to show that existing private and public storage is sufficient for the market size in the region.