7 Feb 2002

Food crisis persists, despite government action

A concerted government campaign to end Zambia's severe food crisis through grain imports appears to have met with little success and left government planners in a quandary, analysts said on Thursday, Feb 7.

They said the government's maize import programme had failed to end a widespread shortage of maize meal, the country's staple cereal, or to push meal prices down. The shortage has in recent weeks manifested itself in spiralling prices and endless queues at retail outlets in the urban areas, and in increasing cross border movements by hungry villagers into neighbouring Malawi and Moçambique in search of casual work for food.

Zambia is facing a severe maize shortage after crop failure in 2000-2001, largely as a result of excessive rains and poor inputs distribution, saw output drop by around 30 percent. The annual domestic maize demand is around 700,000 mt.

The government, which embarked on a massive maize import exercise late last year, partly blames the continued shortage on unscrupulous millers, who it claims are hoarding maize stocks to push prices up. Last month, it waived customs duty for 19 large milling companies in the hope that they would flood the market with imported maize and bring down maize meal prices.

However, a spot check by IRIN in the capital on Thursday revealed that maize meal was still in short supply on the market, and that it was still selling at around 45,000 kwacha (about US $11) per 25 kg bag, up from around 18,000 kwacha only four months ago.

Early this week, Vice-President Enoch Kavindele charged that unscrupulous street vendors were creating an artificial shortage by buying most of the meal from retail outlets for resale at inflated prices on the streets. However, other observers maintain that that the maize shortage is real, and is caused by the country's failure to import enough grain to meet the demand.

The World Food Programme (WFP), which has undertaken to provide 42,000 mt of maize to some 1.2 million rural villagers faced with starvation, said current import levels fell far short of the requirement. "The country needs about 50,000 mt of grain per month. The WFP will provide some 10,000 mt per month, and the commercial sector is expected to bring in the balance. However, our contacts in the commercial sector say that the commercial sector is bringing in only between 15,000 and 25,000 mt per month," WFP representative Richard Ragan told IRIN on Thursday. Ragan said WFP was directing its emergency food aid programme at 24 rural districts which had suffered a 30 percent decrease in output or a 30 percent increase in rainfall in the last season. A family of five would receive one 50 kg bag of maize and heps, a high energy protein food, per month under the exercise.

Two months ago, WFP launched an appeal for US $18 million in food aid for Zambia, but only Germany has responded so far, pledging US $1.9 million towards the exercise.

Some economic analysts blame the persistent maize shortage on congestion on the import routes and a dearth of convertible currencies on the market - and predict that the situation will worsen before it improves. "The market is extremely short at the moment and market sentiment remains bearish towards the local unit and this is causing some anxiety with the importers, especially the millers, whose desperate attempts to import maize to cover the deficit are being frustrated by the lack of foreign exchange," Citibank Zambia said in a daily market bulletin on Wednesday. "Generally, market technicals are indicating a further weakening for the beleaguered Kwacha."

Meanwhile, the Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU) warned that the country would remain with a food deficit for as long as factors that inhibited the development of agriculture, including an unstable business climate and an ineffective marketing system, remained unchanged. "A stable macro-economic environment is essential if agricultural performance is to improve. High rates of inflation coupled with high interest rates and exchange rate uncertainties continue to weaken the agricultural performance. When the macro-economic environment was predictable and stable in the early 1990s, we saw an inflow of reputable international grain buyers and agro-processors. These have since left the country and we can only attract them back if we correct our macro-economic environment and install investor confidence," ZNFU president Ajay Vashee said. "A sustainable system of maize marketing, particularly for small scale farmers, must immediately be put in place without any loopholes of resources going irretrievably into wrong hands. An assured market with reasonable prices is the only way to achieve national food security," he added.

The reformist government of former president Frederick Chiluba transferred agricultural marketing activities from state to private hands. However, private marketing agents have often been unwilling to extend their services to some strategic food producing areas in remote parts of the country with impassable roads and generally poor infrastructure for business reasons. (IRIN)

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