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Could Zimbabwe return to being a net corn exporter?

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Zimbabwe, once known as the breadbasket of southern Africa, said it is confident that an agricultural productivity programme could see it return to being a net exporter of corn within the next three years.

However, local market analysts think this is ambitious.

The government says the programme seeks to return Zimbabwe to self sufficiency, build its food reserves and earn foreign currency from selling any surplus.

The last time Zimbabwe exported corn at all was in 2001-02, according to US Department of Agriculture data, while imports have trended upwards over the last decade and a half to reach a record 1.4m tonnes in 2016.

'Export any extra'

Justin Mupamhanga, deputy chief secretary to the president and Cabinet, told a government supporting newspaper that the Zimbabwe government anticipates the Command Agriculture programme will enable the country to produce an average annual corn crop of 2m tonnes over the next three harvests.

With 1.5m tonnes of domestic demand each year, it would take three seasons to build up a 1.5m-tonne reserve equal to a year's consumption.

Once this target is met, the surplus corn would be available for export sales.

"What is important is to ensure that we have sufficient to eat for the year, and also that we have a strategic reserve," noted Mr Mupamhanga.

"It is logical that we export any extra, because exports are the foreign currency earners."

Overambitious?

Local market analysts think the government is being ambitious.

They put domestic corn consumption at around 2.2m tonnes each year.

While a big crop is expected this year after good rains – possibly in the order of 1.8-2.1m tonnes – neighbouring countries such as South Africa, Malawi and Zambia will be harvesting greater corn yields.

So even in a good year, Zimbabwe's productivity lags other nations in the region, and it will be a challenge for it to sustain the higher yield level over three or more seasons and have a surplus to export.

Historical trends

USDA data shows that Zimbabwe last produced a 2m-tonne corn crop in 2000.

It had five harvests in excess of 2m tonnes in the previous decade, with an all-time record of 2.95m tonnes in 1984.

But political instability and the land reform programme since 2000 mean there have only been four harvests of 1m tonnes or over in the subsequent years, with annual production averaging 850,000 tonnes and ranging from 0.5-1.5m tonnes.

Zimbabwe's 2016 crop yielded only 512,000 tonnes – while this low is officially attributed to drought, insiders also point to the parlous state of much of the country's irrigation infrastructure.

Key support scheme

The Command Agriculture programme is funded by the privately held Zimbabwean company Sakunda Holdings.

It provides 2,000 participating growers with essential inputs such as farm and irrigation equipment, seed, fertilisers, crop protection chemicals and farm management advice.

In return for this advance, the growers pledge to produce at least 1,000 tonnes of corn. They must return a 5 tonnes-per-hectare repayment to Sakunda, with any additional yield retained by the farm.

Reports from the fertile Mashonaland Central region of Zimbabwe show that farmers on the programme have achieved corn yields of 9-11 tonnes per hectare this year.

Third time lucky?

However, some observers reported logistical problems in getting the inputs to the right place and in time to ensure optimum establishment and growing conditions.

Others drew attention to theft of programme inputs and vandalism problems with farm equipment, especially irrigation systems.

Zimbabwe's two previous farm productivity schemes in the last decade have largely failed.

It remains to be seen whether the latest one can succeed and maintain a consistent increase, so that the country can return to the corn production levels it last enjoyed 20 years ago.

By Jamie Day

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