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Farmers buckle under drought

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Farmers buckle under drought
Grain farmers in Southern and East Africa are under pressure because of extreme weather events. Image credit: Spencer Scott from Unsplash.

Farmers buckle under drought

The agricultural sector in parts of Africa is under pressure because of extreme weather events.

By Leon Louw owner of WhyAfrica and editor of the WhyAfrica magazine  

This year’s El Niño effect has made its impact felt in countries like Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Malawi and Tanzania, while farmers in South Africa have had the best, and worst, of both worlds (too much or too little rain).

Early in March Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema declared the country’s debilitating drought a national disaster and emergency. He said the drought devastated food production and electricity generation.

A month later President Lazarus Chakwera of Malawi followed suit and declared a state of disaster in 23 of its 28 districts. President Chakwera said Malawi urgently needs more than USD200-million in humanitarian assistance.

According to President Hichilema, 84 of Zambia’s 116 districts are affected by the prolonged drought. Zambia has also been battling to recover from a deadly cholera outbreak.

Neighbouring Zimbabwe has shared a similar fate, and while reports of cholera persist, Zimbabwe is also facing a glaring food shortage as crops across the country fail because of extreme drought conditions.

Certain areas in Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi have been dealing with periodic, intense drought, followed by extreme rainfall, which has made a severe impact on production, especially for tobacco farmers in Tanzania.

Increasing pressure on South Africa (Farmers buckle under drought)

According to Wandile Sihlobo, Chief Economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz), Southern Africa’s maize supplies will likely be tight in the 2023/24 season.

“With Zambia, the second largest maize producer in the area after South Africa, declared a drought disaster, there will be increased pressure on South Africa to supply maize to the neighbouring countries. The issue will be white maize for human consumption in most countries,” says Sihlobo.

Although South African farmers had a slightly better rain season, early production forecasts indicate that South Africa also has a major challenge.

For example, the Crop Estimate Committee places South Africa’s 2023/24 white and yellow maize harvest at 7,0 million tonnes (down 17% y/y) and 7,3 million tonnes (down 8% y/y), thus placing the overall maize production estimate at 14,3 million tonnes (down 13% y/y).

The challenge for maize is the possible poor yield because of dry conditions in some regions, as the area plantings are higher than in the 2022/23 season.

The excessive heat and scant rains across South Africa are a significant concern for farmers, particularly in the summer grains and oilseed-producing regions.

However, the 2023/24 summer crop season started on favourable footing. South Africa received widespread rains, which was unusual in an El Niño season, that would typically start with drier weather conditions.

“Those good early-season rains led us to believe the country would have a decent harvest in the 2023/24 production season. But this view has now changed. There is concern about possible poor harvests if there is no widespread rain during these closing days of February into the first week of March,” says Sihlobo.

South Africa remain an exporter (Farmers buckle under drought)

Sihlobo adds that while this expected maize harvest of 14,3 million tonnes is significantly lower than the previous season, if it materialises, it will still meet South Africa’s annual maize consumption of roughly 12,00 million tonnes, and the country would remain a net exporter of maize, although a much lower volume than the previous years.

“But if the region struggles with drought, South Africa’s possible small surplus may be too tight to meet regional needs. There are also drought concerns in neighbouring countries such as Botswana, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe,” he says.

However, there is widespread uncertainty about the maize harvest size in South Africa. According to Tobias Doyer, CEO of Grain SA, recent weather conditions in South Africa had a significant impact on grain producers in the region.

“The winter grain production season faced several challenges with excessive rain in certain areas resulting in losses in yields and placing financial pressure on producers in affected areas.

In stark contrast to the winter grain production regions, the summer grain production regions are currently experiencing major challenges with drought conditions. The extreme heat and dry conditions caused the harvest to deteriorate much faster than initially expected,” says Doyer.

According to Doyer, there are large areas where the damage is already irreversible. “We have seen irrigated maize which is also experiencing challenges due to load shedding as well as the heat conditions.

These challenges are experienced at a time where margins on crops such as maize are already low due to international supplies and international price pressure. This makes the recovery period of individual producers very difficult in challenging production conditions.

Monitoring local conditions (Farmers buckle under drought)

Doyer says that Grain SA is very concerned about the impact of the drought and market conditions on grain producers.

“International competitors enjoy the benefits of subsidised, affordable comprehensive insurance, providing them with a competitive advantage. Similar local systems could have substantially supported South African producers given the challenging production conditions,” says Doyer.

Derek Mathews, chairman of Grain SA says that the National Crop Estimate Committee’s first estimate, which will be published at the end of February, will be important to evaluate the national situation.

“However, the reality is that there are currently several individual producers who are facing significant losses due to the drought and markets,” says Mathews, also a producer in one of the areas experiencing significant challenges.

The scorching temperatures and prolonged dry spells have ravaged agricultural lands, severely impacting both developing and commercial producers.

With financial strains mounting due to decreased yields and rising production costs, the South African grain industry called on government for support and assistance to alleviate the burden on producers.

Grain producers face uphill battle (Farmers buckle under drought)

“The current drought gripping South Africa has pushed agricultural conditions to their limits. The relentless heat waves, coupled with erratic rainfall patterns, have desiccated farmlands, leaving them parched and unyielding,” says Mathews.

Grain producers, who form the backbone of the nation’s agricultural sector, are facing an uphill battle as they struggle to cope with the devastating effects of the drought, with some producers receiving below 50% of their average rainfall in the current season.

This is on the back of the industry already experiencing a negative growth in GDP for the last two quarters, placing the agricultural sector in a technical recession.

Grain and oilseeds form part of 70% of all food and therefore have a large multiplier effect throughout various industries.

The financial strain on grain producers has far-reaching implications, not only for their own livelihoods but also on South Africa’s GDP and it therefore paramount and in the country’s interest that producers are assisted to survive financially through the drought cycle.

Crop failures and financial losses (Farmers buckle under drought)

“The sweltering temperatures have led to decreased yields, squeezing profit margins, and threatening the viability of entire operations. Many commercial producers are grappling with the prospect of crop failures and financial losses, further exacerbating the strain on their businesses,” says Mathews.

This impact is also pronounced among developing producers, who often lack the financial resources and infrastructure to withstand such adversity.

Investments that have been made in developing the agricultural sector is diminished due to the disaster of the drought. With their livelihoods hanging in the balance, and no method to mitigate the risk, these producers are facing dire financial constraints, struggling to keep their farms afloat amidst dwindling resources and mounting debts.

“The current conditions highlight the realities of agricultural production and the impact of climatic conditions on food security and prices on South Africans, but also the Southern African community.”

Appeal for government support (Farmers buckle under drought)

“Agricultural producers are currently engaging with financiers and agribusiness to ensure that they can resume production in the next season.

“However, it is clear that a number of producers are in severe distress and will need support to ensure the sustainability of our food production sector”, says Doyer.

“Considering these challenges, the South African grain industry is issuing an urgent appeal to government for support and assistance. Immediate action is needed to provide financial assistance through an agricultural disaster fund, access to affordable credit remedies and affordable income insurance, enabling producers to weather the crisis and sustain their livelihood,” Doyer concludes.

Farmers buckle under drought

Farmers buckle under drought
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Farmers buckle under drought

 

 

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