South Africa set to Produce Biggest Maize Harvest in Four Decades

12 July 2017 Caleb Gorton, Research Assistant, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


South Africa is expected to produce its largest maize harvest in four decades following strong yields and high rainfall. The 2017 maize output is predicted to be 15.6 million tonnes, an 89 per cent increase from last year’s meagre harvest that resulted from the 2015-16 El Niño-induced drought in Southern Africa. South Africa is set to regain its position as a net exporter of maize after recording net imports during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 marketing seasons. The 2017-18 maize exports are predicted to reach over three million tonnes, the highest volume in 23 years. This agricultural success comes amid poor harvests and high maize prices in East Africa and price depreciation in Southern Africa.


Southern Africa is set to undergo its most productive maize harvest in years; this year’s regional productivity for grain is forecast to grow by 45 per cent from 2016. Following the pattern of South Africa’s output growth, Zambia and Malawi are expected to increase maize production by 29 per cent and 36 per cent, respectively. Zimbabwe is set to produce 1.8 million tonnes of maize this year, three times its poor 2016 harvest. Although Zimbabwe is predicted to net import 400,000 tonnes this year, its terms of trade for maize has significantly improved from last year’s 1.4 million tonne import. In addition to favourable weather conditions, crop damage from the outbreak of the introduced armyworm has not met the severity of concerns posed earlier in the year, when it was predicted that the pest could destroy up to 40 per cent of Zambian maize crops. While the consequences of armyworm have been minimal in Zambia, other parts of Africa affected by the pest have not been as fortunate.

The disparity in maize production levels and prices between Southern and East Africa provides Southern African countries with a sizable export opportunity. According to the July report of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, maize prices in several East African countries are near or at record highs. High prices in East Africa reflect the poor harvests from the 2016-17 drought conditions and concerning prospects for imminent harvests, with Somalia and South Sudan on the brink of famine. In East Africa, one tonne of maize cost over 50,000 Kenyan shillings ($631.18) in Nairobi and over 1.44 million Ugandan shillings ($524.80) in Kampala at the end of June. The maize price in Southern Africa, however, has fallen sharply, largely due to this season’s high supply expectations. The wholesale price of white maize in South Africa fell below 1,729 rand ($167.16) per tonne in June, recording a 63.8 per cent depreciation in one year.

Restrictions on genetically modified (GM) seeds in many African countries will obstruct South Africa’s desire to benefit from the high prices and low supplies of maize in East Africa. Although several countries are moving towards GM crop trials, South Africa is the only country in Africa to commercially grow GM maize. Around 85 per cent of South African maize is grown from GM seeds that are banned in East African countries such as Kenya and Burundi. In addition, South Africa faces strong competition from its maize producing neighbours, particularly Zambia and Malawi. Those countries are set to benefit the most from East Africa’s food shortage, especially in GM restricted markets.

Southern Africa’s short-term food security outlook appears promising after suffering its worst drought in three decades. Long-term conditions, however, remain stark. In March, the South African Government released a statement warning that El Niño drought conditions were likely to return in the spring and summer season this year. The favourable weather that led to this year’s strong harvests and maize surpluses in Southern Africa may not endure.

Agricultural production in Southern Africa is unlikely to have the capacity to keep up with the region’s rapid population growth. The region’s population is expected to rise from 200 million to over 300 million by 2040. The Institute for Security Studies forecasts an 80 per cent growth in agricultural demand over the next 23 years, despite regional production rising by only 35 per cent. Regional food imports, as a result, are set to increase from 3.5 per cent to nearly 29 per cent of total demand over this period. Without an improvement in food production yields, the region will become increasingly vulnerable to food shortages and price hikes. The current food security conditions cannot be expected to persist as a long-term trend.

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