Zimbabwe faces the challenge of feeding its people against a background of scarce access to currency limiting its farming industry’s access to inputs and its processing industry’s access to imported grain. This year, adverse weather cut grain output, adding to the issues faced.

The International Grains Council (IGC) puts Zimbabwe’s corn production at 900,000 tonnes in 2020-21, up from 800,000 the year before. It forecasts the country’s total grains imports at 900,000 tonnes in 2020-21, up from 800,000 in 2019-20.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in a June 25 Country Brief on Zimbabwe, puts the country’s corn production at 908,000 tonnes, up 16.9% on the previous year’s level. It puts the wheat crop at 100,000 tonnes, up 25%, and sorghum at 104,000 tonnes, up 150.6%. Noting that harvesting of the main season crops was expected to be completed by the end of June, the FAO explained that although the corn crop is up on 2019’s level, it is 25% down on the five-year average.

“The low crop productivity reflects poor temporal rainfall distribution that particularly affected yields in the communal farming sector, where use of inputs, notably fertilizers, is limited,” the FAO said. “In addition to the reduced yields, a small contraction in the planted area, reflecting limited access to mostly imported agricultural inputs, amid sustained currency weakness and high inflation rates, further contributed to the low corn output in 2020.”

In a June 15, 2020, report on Zimbabwe’s grains sector, the USDA attaché in Pretoria, South Africa, said the 2020-21 corn crop was estimated at 907,628 tonnes, compared with 776,635 tonnes the previous year.

“However, Zimbabwe still recorded below-average yields due to an extremely challenging and climatically sub-optimal summer crop season,” the report said. “The 2020-21 MY (marketing year) is the second consecutive year Zimbabwe recorded a below-average corn harvest, and food insecurity is of severe concern.”

The attaché forecast that Zimbabwe would need to import some 1 million tonnes of corn in 2020-21.

“Late in 2019, Zimbabwe lifted restrictions on the importation of genetically engineered (GE) corn,” the report pointed out. “This paved the way for South Africa, with a bumper corn crop, to be the main supplier of corn to Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s 2020-21 MY’s summer crop season had been characterized by erratic and late rains, followed by extended periods of drought, with improved rainfall in January and February.”

The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) report added that most producers’ purchases of farm inputs were limited by high prices and cash availability, adding to farmers’ problems.

“Fertilizer was also in short supply due to foreign exchange challenges,” the FAS said. “In an effort by Treasury to contain spending, the Zimbabwean government could not optimally roll out its producer support programs: The Presidential Input Scheme and the Special Maize and Soybean Program for Import Substitution (Command Agriculture). As a result, farm inputs were generally inadequate to meet the requirements and the bulk of the inputs were also distributed late in the season.”

Source: US Department of Agriculture

The attaché explained that the Presidential Input Scheme supports 1.8 million small-scale and communal farmers by distributing free inputs for corn production. The Command Agriculture scheme “aims at supporting larger farmers to produce approximately 2 million tonnes of corn to cover Zimbabwe’s annual requirement for human consumption and livestock feed,” the attaché said. “Similar to a contract arrangement, each farmer participating in the program receives a ‘loan’ in the form of a full production input package, including seed, fertilizers, chemicals and fuel, to plant corn in a specified area.

“After harvesting the corn, the farmers have an obligation to deliver a specified tonnage to the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) as repayment for the loan. The corn area planted under the Command Agriculture for the 2020-21 MY was 113,365 hectares, or only 7% of the total area under corn.”

The attaché also highlighted problems with fall armyworm, which has been reported across most of the country, with African armyworm in parts of the Midlands province.

“A number of registered chemicals have been recommended for control of the pest and are available on the market,” the report said. “However, the high costs of chemicals hampered the control, and pest infestation levels ranged from 1% to 10% in individual fields.

“Fortunately, no locust outbreaks were reported as in East Africa. Notwithstanding these pest and climatic challenges, the cultivation of GE corn in Zimbabwe is still prohibited.”

Maize is the staple food of the majority of Zimbabweans.

“Following the poor corn harvest of the last two years, Zimbabwe’s corn supplies are critically low,” the attaché said. “In addition, the poor macroeconomic environment and the COVID-19 lockdown continues to drive food insecurity in the country.”

The report put Zimbabwe’s 2020-21 corn import need at around 1 million tonnes and predicted that South Africa, which has had a bumper crop, will be the major supplier.

Milling sector

The Grain Millers’ Association of Zimbabwe has 105 members, according to a report carried by the Newsday website on Sept. 1, 2020. The website reported calls for national chairman Tafadzwa Musarara and his entire executive group to be reelected. Musarara’s term expired in June 2020, but the organization has been unable to elect a new chairman and executive because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“National Foods is the largest miller in Zimbabwe, with milling facilities strategically located across the country,” William Harry Kapfupi, technical executive – Maize & Cereals at the company, told World Grain by email.

“There are flour and corn mills in the capital Harare as well as the second largest city Bulawayo,” Kapfupi said. “With corn being the staple in Zimbabwe, there are two more corn mills, in the border towns of Mutare and Masvingo, which are utilized in times of drought when demand for corn meal peaks.”

National Foods is the market leader in flour and corn milling, processing 200,000 tonnes of wheat and 200,000 tonnes of corn annually against an estimated market size of 275,000 tonnes of flour and 350,000 tonnes of corn meal, he said.

“Plant capacity utilization varies from year to year dependent on demand with highs of 100% achieved in drought years, although on average 80% is achieved in flour mills and 50% in corn mills,” he said. “The milling industry in Zimbabwe continues to grow, with new entrants in the sector every year supported by local availability of raw materials. Zimbabwe is seized with economic constraints, in particular access to foreign currency, which is essential for millers to procure critical spares, services and raw materials, thereby presenting a challenge to the industry. Through collaborative engagements between the private sector and government, this challenge is continually addressed with notable success.

“National Foods, which I’m proud to say turns 100 years old in 2020, remains committed to its duty of ensuring availability of basic commodities. We look forward to the next prosperous 100 years, consolidating our core milling business as well as growth and innovation into new categories, for example, cereals, after investing in and commissioning a world class extrusion plant from Bühler in 2019.”

The price of bread in Zimbabwe is controversial. On Aug. 9, the Sunday Mail newspaper reported that the government had blocked a plan by bakers to increase the price of a standard loaf to $80 from $60. At the same time, the government assured the sector that it would make available more than $2 million each week.

Bakers came up with the plan at a virtual meeting hosted by the Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe, with representatives of the National Bakers Association of Zimbabwe, including Bakers Inn, Lobels Bread and Proton attending. Millers taking part included National Foods, Blue Ribbon Foods and Edurate Milling.

Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Governor Dr. John Mangudya was quoted as saying in response to the meeting that “we want to assure bakers and millers that going forward they will now be prioritized for foreign currency allocation during the weekly forex auction. We expect bread prices to go down given the fact that bakers are now accessing forex at the auction at a much lower rate of $80 against $1.”

Chris Lyddon is World Grain’s European correspondent. He may be contacted at: chris.lyddon@ntlworld.com.