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South Africa’s export profile complicates regional food security situation in Eastern and Southern Africa

02 December 2012

In September 2012, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), reported improved food security prospects in Eastern Africa due to increased food supplies, but warned that 16 million people remained food-insecure because of ‘poor production in 2011 and the first half of 2012’, and impacts of ‘conflicts, macro-economic shocks, and rising global prices’. A surplus available in Tanzania is expected to meet needs within the EAC and the Horn of Africa.

In Southern Africa, FEWS NET reported a tightening of regional maize supplies and rising prices, with South African Futures Exchange (SAFEX) maize prices rising sharply between June and mid August 2012 in response to US price increases and warnings of possible further increases. FEWS NET maintained that ‘regional food security is stable’, but with ‘pockets of acute food insecurity… due to reduced harvests’. Future production prospects were seen as reasonable, given normal rainfall patterns.

According to FEWS NET, surpluses in certain countries (Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia) ‘are just sufficient to cover the import requirements of grain deficit countries in the region’. However, the increased demand from international markets for South Africa’s maize surplus is a source of concern in the region, since recent experience suggests that South African grain traders ‘may prioritize shipments to the more lucrative markets outside of Southern Africa’.

Figures reported by USDA in October 2012 provided more detail in this respect. An 11% increase in South African maize production in 2011/12 was reported, with this likely to lead to a 30% increase in exports (from 1.8 million tonnes to 2.4 million tonnes). However, a continued focus on the Mexican market was evident. In 2010/11, USDA figures reported that Mexico took ‘almost half of the exports’, while in the first 6 months of 2011/12 Mexico accounted for fully 70.6% of total maize exports.

In contrast, a total of 426,000 tonnes of white maize (24.6% of total exports) and 131,000 tonnes of yellow maize (18.4% of total exports) was exported to African countries in 2010/11, and some 22% of total white maize exports and 86.4% of total yellow maize exports from 1 May to 19 October 2012.

On 5 September 2012, ‘the Zambian government announced a temporary maize export ban… due to recent exports of large quantities of maize by foreign traders.’ This was brought about through the centralisation of the issuing of export permits, with the government deciding ‘to revoke all export permits previously issued at the district level’.

In neighbouring Malawi, ‘it is not clear how much of the projected surplus is exportable… in view of the large shortages prevailing in the southern region. Furthermore, the prevailing export ban effectively prevents any flows of maize out of the country.’

In terms of the complexities of intra-regional cereals trade flows, USDA highlighted how some 134,000 tonnes of white maize was imported from Zambia in 2010/11 for milling in the north of South Africa, largely for re-export as maize meal to Zimbabwe.

Editorial comment

Since surpluses across the region ‘are just sufficient to cover the import requirements of grain deficit countries’, patterns of South African maize exports become an important factor in government policy-making processes across the region. In recent years, South African maize exporters have increasingly focused on overseas markets (see Agritrade article ‘ SACU farmers respond to high maize prices’, 1 October 2012).

Governments in Zambia and Malawi have tended to adopt a precautionary approach to maize exports, and high global food prices and industrial unrest in the transportation sector in South Africa will have reinforced this precautionary approach. According to press reports, government representatives maintained that these developments contribute to the government’s decision to centralise the export permit process in Zambia, in order to keep a tighter rein on the maize export trade, although other factors may have played a role.

The policy position of some Southern and Eastern African governments over imports of GM maize (special import procedures and controls) also constrains the accessibility of regional maize surpluses (i.e. those from South Africa) for maize-deficit countries. By the 2011/12 season, 72% of South African maize production was classified as derived from GM seeds, up from 28% in 2005/06.

The combination of these factors means that simple considerations of regional maize production and consumption are an insufficient basis for assessing food security across the Southern and Eastern African region.


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