HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Zimbabwe’s planting of the 2015 maize crop is still ongoing in some locations due to the late start of seasonal rains, with the bulk of harvesting activities expected to commence from May, according to a Jan. 8 GIEWS Country Brief from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Rains since the start of the cropping season in October-November have been erratic and, despite heavier downpours in mid-December, cumulative precipitation levels remain below-average.Higher temperatures have also exacerbated the impact of rainfall deficits.

As a result, vegetation conditions are generally below-normal across most of the country, implying retarded crop development, with some areas in the south reportedly already experiencing crop failure. The poor start to the cropping season has caused a reduced rate in maize plantings, with plantings about one-third lower as of December 2015 compared to the same period of the previous year, which could result in a contraction in the total planted area. Overall, current production prospects for the 2016 cereal crops are unfavorable.

Total cereal production in 2015 is estimated at 870,000 tonnes, about 50% below the 2014 output and approximately 40% lower than the five-year average. The steep decline is mostly the result of an extended dry period in the first quarter of 2015 that resulted in crop losses and a reduction in yields, The less productive southern and western provinces of Midlands, Masvingo, Matabeleland North and South, were the worst-hit areas, with maize harvests decreasing between 66% and 84% compared with the 2014 outputs. Maize, sorghum and millet production registered declines of 50% and more.

As a result of the reduced 2015 maize harvest, the import requirement for the 2015-16 marketing year (April-March) is estimated between 650,000 and 700,000 tonnes (assuming an unchanged consumption rate), well above the reduced level of last year. As of October, approximately 400,000 tonnes were imported from Zambia, at the rate of 57,000 tonnes per month. If this rate would continue until March, the country would be expected to fully satisfy its consumption needs.

Prices of maize meal were generally below their year-earlier levels as of October 2015 and had remained stable since January, with limited disparities between regions. The overall stable trend has been helped by large import volumes and generally stable prices in Zambia. However, upward pressure is expected in the coming months as national stocks decrease and recently increasing prices in Zambia filter through to the country.

An estimated 1.49 million people (16% of the rural population) are food insecure in the January-March 2016 period, up from 560,000 in the previous year, according to the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee’s 2015 evaluation. The sharp increase is largely due to the reduced cereal production and consequently lower households stocks, with the highest rates of food insecurity in the Midlands, Masvingo, Matabeleland North and South, corresponding to the provinces that registered the largest maize production decreases. Government and the United Nations have been distributing food to the most vulnerable families.

A consecutive poor cereal harvest in 2016, resulting from the El Niño?associated dry weather, could further worsen the poor food security situation.