South African Corn Exports May Plunge 58% on El Niño, Agbiz Says

(Bloomberg) -- South African corn exports will probably drop 58% this marketing season, potentially resulting in shortages in neighboring states that traditionally rely on the nation during droughts, the Agricultural Business Chamber forecast.

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The country is expected to ship 1.44 million tons of the grain in the 12 months through April 2025, compared with 3.44 million tons in the season just ended, the chamber known as Agbiz said in a note to clients on Monday. The decline comes as the crop is forecast to fall 19% to 13.3 million tons after the El Niño weather pattern scorched fields.

While South Africa will reap enough corn, known locally as maize, to meet its own needs and maintain some exports, the smaller harvest will limit options for countries including Zimbabwe and Zambia, where output declined 66% and 54% respectively. That means the two nations will likely need to import more than 2 million tons of corn, Agbiz said.

“The full impact of the 2023-24 mid-summer drought in the southern Africa region’s maize supplies will likely show more acutely toward the end of the year and into the first quarter” after the current harvest has been consumed, Agbiz said. “Southern African countries in a more precarious position will likely be Zimbabwe and Zambia.”

Zimbabwe harvested an estimated 744,271 tons of corn, the lowest since a drought in 2016, against domestic needs of about 2 million tons, with the crop also reduced by the inability of many farmers to afford fertilizer. Production in Zambia fell to a 16-year low of 1.5 million tons.

Genetically Modified

With the expected drop in output in South Africa, which last season was Africa’s biggest corn exporter and vied with Paraguay for the rank of sixth-largest globally, southern African countries will likely struggle to meet their needs, Agbiz said. The countries primarily rely on white corn for human consumption, a variety that isn’t as widely produced as the yellow variety. Zambia prohibits the import of genetically modified corn, which accounts for the bulk of world production.

“It is already a challenge to find white maize in the world market, regardless of whether it is geneticaly modified or not,” Agbiz said. “The primary producers are the southern African region (South Africa specifically) and Mexico.”

South Africa will likely export 840,000 tons of white corn and 600,000 tons of yellow, the chamber said.

Last week, Zambia’s government said it signed a deal to import a minimum of 500,000 tons of white corn from Tanzania, while Zimbabwean millers have said they’re seeking as much as 1.4 million tons from countries including Russia, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and the US. The government has said that 9 million people, or 60% of its population, will need food aid until the end of March.

Tanzania is forecast to have 500,000 tons available for export this season, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

In the season that began at the start of May, South Africa has exported 256,000 tons of white and yellow corn, of which almost half has gone to Zimbabwe, with the rest going to Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique and Eswatini.

President Mokgweetsi Masisi of Botswana on June 21 declared an “extreme agricultural drought” with local cereal production likely to meet only 6% of projected annual demand. The country has also said it’s seeking corn from Brazil.

--With assistance from Mbongeni Mguni, Ray Ndlovu and Rene Vollgraaff.

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