Senior economist Thabile Nkunjana delves into Malawi’s maize crisis, exploring import bans from Kenya and Tanzania. As supply challenges deepen, he highlights the nation’s shift towards South Africa for relief amid rising food inflation and global uncertainties.
Malawi announced a ban on maize imports from Kenya and Tanzania in late December 2023. This follows concerns raised by Malawi’s government officials about the potential spread of maize fatal necrosis disease on maize imports from Kenya and Tanzania.
Although the prohibition is only temporary, Cyclone Freddy, which devastated hundreds of hectares of crops in March 2023, and an embargo placed by Zambia – Malawi’s key maize supplier – left Malawi grappling with supply concerns of maize.
Malawi’s grain imports have increased in recent years, with wheat and maize leading the way. Zambia has been a key supplier of maize due to its non-genetically modified organism (GMO) status, Malawi’s preferred maize, as opposed to South Africa, the region’s leading maize supplier which produces and exports GMO maize.
Crossroads in maize trade
According to data from the International Trade Centre, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and the World Trade Organisation, typically Zambia exports between 60% to 90% of maize to Malawi on an annual basis, with small amounts coming from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa.
Unfortunately for Malawi, Zimbabwe, which has been exporting some maize to complement maize imports from Zambia, also imports some maize from Zambia, which has restricted maize exports.
As a result, Zimbabwe has been importing from South Africa, and Malawi’s chances of importing from Zimbabwe this season are minimal.
Following Zambia’s restriction on maize exports in early 2023, Kenya and Tanzania were to be considered as prospective substitute suppliers of maize for Malawi as is usually the case during years of maize shortages until supplies improve, but this ban presents more challenges for Malawi.
As a result of these developments, Malawi may be forced to import maize, maize meal, and grits from South Africa, which can readily export the quantities required by Malawi at any one time this season.
South Africa’s annual maize demand is predicted to be around 12 million tonnes, and the country is expected to export around 3.3 million tonnes of maize in the 2023/24 marketing year, which began in May 2023. As of 8 December 2023, South Africa had exported a total of 2.4 million tonnes of maize for the current marketing season, meaning that about 900 000 tonnes of maize for exports are available from South Africa till March-April 2024.
Malawi’s race against rising food prices
Malawi’s maize imports averaged 2 395 tonnes between 2018 and 2022, with the highest quantity of 322 226 tonnes imported in 2016 following a dramatic surge in imports following the 2016 El Nino phenomenon which reduced yields for that year’s production season prior. Before the ban, Malawi was already facing food shortages, with the World Food Programme (WFP) forecasting that at least 4 million people will face food scarcity by March 2024.
According to Malawi’s National Statistics Office, annual food inflation was 41.7% high in November 2023, up from 34% the previous month. With so much uncertainty surrounding the Middle East conflict, the already high food inflation in Malawi, and the El Niño effects on global grain production and markets, Malawi may be compelled to buy maize or its products wherever and whenever it is available, and South Africa is the most likely supplier regionally.
In such circumstances, governments must make well-informed judgments, particularly when faced with a complicated situation resulting from all of the aforementioned issues and carefully craft policies to protect people from rising food prices and the possibility of severe food shortages.
However, with multiple countries lining up to import maize from South Africa on a worldwide scale, maize export prices may rise slightly, which will benefit local farmers but not the livestock sector consumers or importing countries. But this will be determined by what happens in the global grain market in the next weeks.
- Thabile Nkunjana is a senior economist in the markets and economic research division of the National Agricultural Marketing Council. He writes in his capacity.
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