HARARE, ZIMBABWE – Faced with reduced rainfall due to El Niño, Zimbabwe is bracing for a possibly significant fall in crop production that could leave a large portion of its rural population without enough food. 

At the end of 2023, government officials said corn (maize) production could be halved to 1.1 million tonnes in 2024 with the agriculture sector shrinking by nearly 5%. But a few weeks into the new year, officials said El Niño had weakened and recent rains had farmers predicting a “decent” crop for 2024. 

The nation experienced above-average cereal production in 2023, setting a record in wheat production, as weather conditions were favorable in the 2022-23 growing season. 

Zimbabwe’s economy is heavily reliant on agriculture, accounting for 17% of the gross domestic product and providing 60% to 70% of the nation’s employment. The performance of agriculture is a key determinant of rural livelihood resilience and poverty levels, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. 

Chronic malnutrition is a major challenge for the nation and 3.5 million people are acutely food insecure and in need of assistance, the FAO said. High food prices, weak economic growth and reduced production are the primary causes of the high food insecurity. The food inflation rate in 2023 was consistently in double digits. 

From January to March, it’s estimated that 26% of the rural population will not have enough cereal and will need more than 100,000 tonnes of corn. The World Food Programme will provide food assistance to 230,000 of the most vulnerable people in four areas of Zimbabwe. 

Of its 39 million total hectares, 33.3 million hectares are used for agricultural purposes, according to the FAO, with 4.13 million hectares of arable land. As weather patterns have changed and droughts have become more frequent, the country has turned to imports to meet domestic demand. 

Corn is the dominant crop, with use as a feed grain and a staple food for most of the population. It is processed into a meal and used to make flour, oil, maputi, samp and grit. Corn is the second most produced crop in Zimbabwe after sugar cane. Wheat is the second most important grain crop and is used to produce flour and semolina. 

Demand for soybeans is increasing due to its use as cooking oil, in stock feeds and other foods, according to the International Trade Administration (ITA). Domestic production is only able to meet 30% of demand, with imports coming predominantly from Zambia and Malawi. 

“At the farm level, soybeans are a short-season crop with a lucrative return on investment of up to 200%,” the ITA said. 

Crop production, consumption

Cereal production in 2023 reached an above-average level of 2.9 million tonnes, according to the FAO, an increase of 35.5% from 2022. Corn production was estimated at 2.3 million tonnes, up 48% from the previous year on conducive weather conditions in the key producing northern provinces. 

White corn is used for human consumption as the main source of carbohydrates while yellow corn is used by the livestock industry for animal feed, according to a report from the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) of the US Department of Agriculture. 

Corn for feed was expected to increase 14% in 2023 to 400,000 tonnes, driven mainly by growth in the poultry industry. Broiler meat production increased 34% in 2022 and is expected to continue its upward growth path. 

“Chicken is ubiquitous and relatively affordable compared to other meats, serving as an important protein source in the diet of many Zimbabweans,” the FAS said. 

The FAO said based on production estimates, import needs in 2023-24 are estimated to be below average. The FAS estimated corn imports at 450,000 tonnes. Most imports will come from South Africa, which produced its third largest corn crop on record in 2023. 

Farmers harvested 457,000 tonnes of wheat in 2023, with average yield per hectare between 5.1 and 5.3 tonnes, according to the nation’s Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development. 

Wheat was planted on 90,998 hectares and harvested from 88,000 hectares. Demand for wheat was 360,000 tonnes in 2022, when the country produced 375,000 tonnes. 

Domestic demand for wheat is about 360,000 tonnes per year. Stocks of wheat were 140,000 tonnes at the end of November 2023. 

Wheat is widely consumed by more than 10 million people in Zimbabwe, mostly as bread. Daily bread production is estimated at 850,000 loaves with monthly wheat consumption of about 25,000 tonnes. 

Flour milling

While wheat production has increased enough to meet demand, the quality is not sufficient for bread production, meaning wheat imports are still necessary. For the last two decades, Zimbabwe has blended imported wheat from Russia, Canada and Australia with local wheat for production of bread flour. 

The nation imports about 30% of its hard wheat needs to blend different varieties and produce high-quality flour, according to the Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe (GMAZ), whose members produce 98% of the country’s flour.

“The quality of our local wheat is good, compared to the regional wheat, and it is doing well in the production of biscuits and a number of other products,” said Tafadzwa Musarara, association chairman, in a 2023 news report. “In relation to bread, we have to mix varieties to give us good durable bread…” 

The National Bakers Association of Zimbabwe said the desired ratio is 70% local wheat and 30% imported wheat. 

The domestic milling industry is dominated by four major processors, with National Foods Holdings Ltd. the leading producer of maize roller meal, super-refined meal and wheat flour. In its 2023 annual report, National Foods said volumes for the year were 553,000 tonnes, down 3% from the previous year. 

This was mostly due to a 12.3% drop in volumes for the flour unit, driven largely by significant increases in the price of wheat. 

“During the second half of the year, wheat prices reduced, and this allowed a recovery in volumes during the period, which closed 3.7% below last year,” according to the report. “Wheat prices are now at more typical historical levels, and we are hopeful of an improved volume trend in the year ahead.”

Installation of a new milling line in Bulawayo was completed at the end of the year and will increase the company’s wheat milling capacity by about 2,000 tonnes per month. National Foods is installing a new pasta line in Harare that will be the only large-scale pasta line in the country.