Botswana seeks corn from drought-hit neighbors as stocks end

Botswana has run out of corn, one of its staple foods, and is banking on imports from drought-hit South Africa and Zambia to meet its needs.

Stocks of locally grown corn in silos are depleted, the state-owned Botswana Agricultural Marketing Board, which manages the country’s strategic grain reserves, said in an e-mailed response to questions. The body is required to keep a minimum of 10,000 metric tons of corn in strategic reserves, it said on its website.

“The board has started the process of buying 5,000 tons of yellow maize from South Africa and 250 tons of white maize from Zambia,” the board said, using another term for corn. “During the current harvest season, we are expecting 2,000 tons of white maize from local farmers.”

The board is targeting 20,000 tons of regional imports this year, but declined to provide estimated costs, citing the privacy of agreements with partners.

An El Nino-induced drought is shrinking grain production across southern Africa and increasing the risk of hunger for some of the world’s poorest populations. It’s been more than a century since fields were this dry in South Africa, the continent’s biggest corn grower and traditional supplier to its neighbors along with Zambia.

While Zambia is expecting an almost 10 percent increase in corn output this year, it has suspended exports until the end of September, Agriculture Minister Given Lubinda said earlier this month. The country will honor existing contracts, but the announcement may dash hopes of neighbors such as South Africa, that are eyeing imports from Zambia to stem shortages after the drought hurt its harvest.

Sorghum Surplus

Many of Botswana’s 2.2 million people cook ground white corn to make a porridge known as phaleche and do the same with sorghum to make bogobe, both considered staples. The board has 30,000 tons of sorghum, above the statutory strategic requirement of 10,000 tons, and expects to harvest 40,000 to 50,000 tons this season, it said.

Demand for white corn in Botswana, the world’s biggest diamond producer after Russia, exceeds 100,000 tons annually, while output is about 10,000 tons. The African country has imported 3,206 tons of yellow corn, which is mainly used as animal feed, from South Africa this year, and about 51,000 tons of the white variety.

The total area on which corn and sorghum was planted this year fell 26 percent to 14,582 hectares (36,032 acres) from a year earlier, the government said in February. Production of grains would meet 29 percent of the national requirement of 320,000 tons, it said.

In January, Botswana Millers Association Chairman Nkosi Mwaba told Bloomberg that while local corn-meal supply would remain stable this year, prices would rise by 25 to 30 percent due to premiums paid for imports.

Botswana President Ian Khama may declare a drought this week and announce the amount of support the government will provide to farmers and communities in the worst dry period the country has experienced in 34 years. Last June, he declared a drought and approved a 445 million-pula ($40 million) supplementary budget for relief measures.