Trouble ahead for Horn of Africa as white maize stocks dry up

Experts are worried that drops in surplus will leave very little for Horn of Africa’s needs

By Tony Malesi
Published: Monday 06 March 2023
Exports from Uganda and Tanzania have often plugged the white maize deficit in other countries across the Horn of Africa. Photo: iStock

The Horn of Africa is facing a double whammy of drought-induced poor harvests and an acute white maize shortage. Regional and global surpluses used to plug deficits in the region are dwindling, according to official projections and expert analyses.

Exports from Uganda and Tanzania have often plugged the white maize deficit in other countries across the Horn of Africa, both formally by governments and aid organisations and informally by border communities and unscrupulous traders. 

The two countries are often self-sufficient in white maize, especially after adequate rainfall and good harvests. Unfortunately, this has not been the case for several months, with prices set to skyrocket.

Read more: Drought in the Horn of Africa: More than 18.5 million in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti face humanitarian crisis

Uganda and Tanzania have a fairly large arable landmass of approximately 34 per cent and 15 per cent, respectively and slightly better farming climatic conditions.

Meanwhile, over 80-90 per cent of the landmass in the rest of the countries in the Horn of Africa are either arid or semi-arid and therefore not arable, especially in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan. 

With the worst drought in 40 years ravaging the entire region, the projected deficits have been increasing slowly but surely, even as the surpluses dwindle significantly, according to United States Department of Agriculture data.

As per the data, the surplus drop is not only happening in Uganda and Tanzania, where, for example, a 16 per cent drop is expected but across sub-Saharan Africa and around the globe. 

Public policy and food security experts are worried that such drops in surplus will leave very little or almost nothing for Horn of Africa’s maize needs, a staple food in the region.

For instance, Kenya, the largest maize importer in the Horn of Africa during the 2021/22 marketing year, is projected to require the importation of between 700,000- 900,000 tonnes (roughly 10 million bags) between January and August 2023. 

Kenya’s projected deficit accounts for slightly over 20 per cent of the region’s expected white maize imports of 3.4 million tonnes, according to the International Grains Council’s statistics.

Kenyan-based public policy and food security expert Robert Shaw is particularly concerned with the effects of the prolonged drought and several failed rain seasons on the region’s maize needs. 

“One country outside the Horn of Africa that is likely to have surpluses throughout the 2022-2023 marketing year is Zambia. Unfortunately, the southern African country has two major challenges. One, they have an unusually high demand from their neighbours, Zimbabwe and Malawi, whom they will give preference to for ease of transportation and other geopolitical considerations,” he said.

Read more: Nearly 1.5 million children at risk of acute malnutrition as Somalia drought worsens

Besides the trouble of getting millions of bags of maize from landlocked Zambia to the Horn of Africa without the benefit of sea transport, Shaw said there is a big challenge in using the land.

This would result in a logistical nightmare, especially in Tanzania, which has a heavy-handed bureaucracy and strict restrictions on maize movement, particularly by long-distance truckers.

South Africa, another major global maize exporter with a projected output of 14.7 million tonnes and over 3.2 million tonnes surplus for export in the 2022-23 season, is not a potential supplier to the Horn of Africa.

It has a complex bureaucracy of distinguishing Genetically Modified/Engineered Organisms (GMOs) and non-GMO exports to eastern Africa and governments have declared total war on GMOs.

Food security experts are not amused that governments in the Horn of Africa have refused to acknowledge the white maize market is getting thinner worldwide by the day.

Many of them are, in fact, now calling for urgent exploration of other options, including embracing GMOs like South Africa and others to boost maize production to control prices and save lives. 

A few other white maize-producing countries across the globe, such as Mexico, Argentina and the United States could ordinarily have been potential suppliers of the much-needed commodity to hunger and drought-plagued eastern Africa.

Unfortunately, the dynamics in white maize markets across the globe are getting more complex due to several factors, including armyworm infestations, climate change and reduced fertiliser use in some places due to prohibitively higher prices occasioned by the Russia-Ukraine war.

“Mexico, for instance, has its challenges and there is a possibility of them having little or no surpluses at all. Particularly now that the country seems keen on keeping enough for their domestic use,” said Shaw.

Read more: Climate-related health emergencies, disease outbreaks surge in Horn of Africa: WHO

Mexico has become stricter with a 50 per cent export tax on white maize. This, Shaw argued, is a huge disincentive to African importers and will have to retail at an abnormally high market price in the Horn of Africa to make business sense.

The US, like South Africa, is also largely a GMO producer. The ongoing fierce debates in eastern Africa demoniSing GMOs have put African governments on high alert over such imports. 

There being no ready, reasonably priced non-GMO/white maize for the hunger-plagued Horn of Africa, the mainstream expert opinion revolves around embracing GMO science and technology. 

Another growing body of evidence suggests an assertive policy by governments, allowing duty-free importation of yellow maize for animal feeds, consequently easing demand for white maize.

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