21 January 2005

Better rains boost southern Africa crop hopes

Good rains have left most of southern Africa expecting better crops in 2005 than in recent years, but the "lean season" before the new harvest is boosting short-term demand for food aid.

But the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), a major regional buyer, is facing a funding shortfall as donors focus on relief efforts after the Asian tsunami, and some Africans who would normally expect food aid may go short.

"Generally the picture looks good," the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's regional emergency co-ordinator Graham Farmer told Reuters. "We saw a bit of a late start to the rainy season but December has been good."

In 2002, poor rains across the region left 16 million people short of food, but better weather and agricultural recovery - particularly in Zambia, which has gone from a serious shortfall to significant surplus in only a couple of years - have improved the situation.

But shortages remain, particularly in Malawi and the mountain kingdoms of Swaziland and Lesotho, where soil erosion and erratic rains have hit crops and former miners made redundant by South African mines can no longer feed their families in a bad year.

Farmer said a belt of poor rainfall across southern Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique gave some cause for concern, and that further north rains had been so heavy they had caused some flooding in Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique N though it was not yet clear whether these factors would affect food production.

Drought fears in the main regional producer, South Africa, pushed staple maize prices above 1000 rand a tonne in late November, but good rains since then have pushed prices sharply lower, down to R630 rand a ton on Wednesday.

In 2004 the WFP switched the purchase of the majority of its food aid from South Africa to Zambia, whose maize was cheaper, but WFP senior regional advisor George Aelion said the South African price slump had made its maize competitive again.

"We'll bring the South African equation back into the tender process," he said.

But the WFP has received no donations for southern Africa since the December 26 Asian tsunami, and this may threaten its operations - which it had planned to increase in the coming months, he said.

The 2004 crop has now been consumed and the 2005 crop is not due to be harvested until April or May, so that southern Africa is entering its "lean season".

Observers say that as the hungry period begins, food prices across the region have been rising - more slowly than expected in Malawi but more rapidly in Zimbabwe, where the government had forecast a bumper harvest but where agencies say shortages are emerging.


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