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By Shapi Shacinda

LUSAKA (Reuters) – Zambia may import up to 100,000 tonnes of white maize to plug a deficit expected in the first quarter of 2009 after experiencing crop failure this year, industry sources told Reuters on Tuesday.

The imports will be the first in over four years when Zambia became a net exporter of white maize, having previously experienced maize deficits due partly to a combination of drought and floods and what industry officials at that time said were poor government agricultural policies.

An industry official told Reuters that the state-run Food Reserve Agency (FRA) only had two months maize cover after Zambia’s total maize output declined to 1.2 million tonnes in the 2006/07 from 1.3 million tonnes in 2007/08 on the back of floods in some parts of the country.

“We are definitely going to import white maize because the FRA only has two months supply which is not adequate to take us to the next harvest (April/May 2009),” the industry source said.

Industry sources said the government had failed to heed warnings by farmers and millers to import maize in June.

“Initially we had estimated that we could need up to 200,000 tonnes but now we project the imports will be between 50,000 tonnes and 100,000 tonnes of maize,” a miller told Reuters.

Zambia’s agriculture, food and fisheries minister Ben Kapita declined to comment on the matter.

“I have no comment to make on the maize issue just now. We will issue a statement later today (Tuesday),” Kapita told Reuters.

It was not immediately clear how much maize the FRA had in stock after it extended the maize marketing season.

“We will only give out the numbers in a week’s time as we are currently doing the verification exercise,” Mwamba Siame, the FRA spokeswoman told Reuters.

“Unfortunately South Africa has run out of non-GMO (genetically modified) maize because Zimbabwe moved in swiftly to import maize from there and we will have to source the maize elsewhere at very high cost,” the industry source said.

Prices of white ground maize meal, the southern African country’s staple food, have in recent weeks risen to about $16 per 25 kg in some parts of the country from around $10 a few weeks ago, state media reported.

In the last three agricultural seasons, Zambia turned its maize production around and became a net exporter of maize on the back of good rains and a government policy to provide subsidized fertilizers and seed to peasant farmers.

The policy won international praise for the late Zambia President Levy Mwanawasa, who died in France last August after suffering a second stroke.

Mwanawasa was replaced by Rupiah Banda, who won a controversial presidential vote in October after narrowly beating his main opposition rival Michael Sata.