In February 2013 complaints emerged in Zimbabwe over purchases of 17,000 tonnes of maize from Zambia by Zimbabwean grain millers which had been blocked following the introduction of a de facto export ban. The Chairman of the Grain Miller’s Association of Zimbabwe (GMAZ) said “Zambia’s Food Reserve Agency (FRA) refused to release the grain although all due payments had been made”. This followed rising maize prices in Zambia, attributed by some analysts to the purchasing policy of the Zambian Food Reserve Agency, which was reportedly “buying huge quantities of maize at high prices from farmers, then selling the maize to millers at deeply subsidised rates”. However, about 25% of FRA-held stocks were reportedly not fit for human consumption. These policy moves, according to press reports, led to price hikes by traders and millers, with this in turn leading the Zambian government to place tighter controls on exports for fear that the large-scale export of Zambia’s surplus would further fuel domestic grain price inflation.
However the Zimbabwean Minister of Industry and Commerce said he expected the issue to be resolved shortly through government-to-government negotiations. On 6 March 2013 Reuters reported the Zambian government had “lifted its restriction on maize exports due to inadequate storage capacity” so as to “create space for the new harvest. “Agriculture Minister Robert Sichinga said in parliament Zambia would export 200,000 tonnes of its 916,934 tonnes of maize”. The lifting of the export ban was confirmed by the acting Zambian President in April 2013, who maintained “the down-sides of having it in place are many”, in particular increased smuggling.
In April 2013 it was reported Zambia would allow the export of 150,000 tonnes of grain to Zimbabwe “on condition that the deal will be on a government-to-government basis”. Press reports in April 2013 indicated private millers in Zimbabwe had turned to South Africa for imports of 20,000 tonnes of maize.
In March 2013 IRIN reported the maize shortage in Zimbabwe was increasing pressure for a review of the government’s GM-free policy, given the ready availability of GM maize in South Africa. Blog postings in April suggested orders placed for maize supplies from South Africa could include GM maize, a product which normally requires prior government approval.
The on–off nature of maize export restrictions introduced by the Zambia government and the current government-to-government agreement between Zambia and Zimbabwe would appear to be undermining the development of private sector maize trading networks between the two countries.
The periodic implementation of export bans, despite SADC’s and COMESA’s commitment to the elimination of non-tariff barriers to trade, suggests a need to strengthen mechanisms to ensure that existing regional trade policy commitments are fulfilled.
Export bans provide poor solutions to price stabilisation challenges, since they discourage production. Longer-term solutions are required, including improving market information systems to facilitate national and intra-regional trade so that regional price disparities are closed.
The use of export bans, however, also highlights the tension that arises from the implementation of national input subsidy and marketing programmes designed to enhance national food security, and regional agricultural trade liberalisation commitments. Put simply, the narrow national political question is often posed of why national taxpayers should finance regional food supplies.
Recent developments in the maize trade between Zambia and Zimbabwe and between South Africa and Zimbabwe would also appear to raise the issue of regional policy harmonisation on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), an issue of growing significance given that GM seed now produces 72% of South African maize (see Agritrade article ‘ South Africa’s export profile complicates regional food security situati...’, 2 December 2012).