Policy Failure caused Zambia’s Food Crisis

Policy Failure caused Zambia’s Food Crisis


This past,Thursday, President Hakainde Hichilema addressed the nation and declared a National Disaster in light of a prolonged dry spell that will affect this year’s agriculture output, especially that of maize which is Zambia’s staple food.

In his address, the president appealed for help “calling upon [Zambia’s] partners, local and international, to avail food and other support that they may have, in order to provide the needed relief.”

This is the first time in a long time that the country has declared a national disaster related to food leaving many to wonder what might have gone wrong.

To be sure, President Hichilema is correct in his assertion that the El Niño-induced dry spell will greatly affect this year’s maize production.

But where he is wrong is in asserting that the dry spell alone explains the hunger crisis that the country will face this year.

As we show below, the looming hunger crisis, which sparked last Thursday’s desperate plea for help, was caused by policy failure on the part of the Zambian government whose chief executive is Hichilema himself.

The story of Zambia’s maize production over the last 20 years or so has been nothing short of a miracle.

Between 2001 and 2021, the country more than tripled its maize output.

According to data from Zambia’s Ministry of Agriculture as reported by FAOSTAT, total maize production in 2001 stood at just under 1 million metric tonnes (MT).

By 2021, that number had grown to 3.62 million MT making that year’s output the biggest in the country’s history.

As is always the case, miracles of this scale (just like disasters) have much to do with government policy. In 2002, the Zambian government, then under the leadership of Levy Mwanawasa, introduced the Farm Input Support Programme (FISP) that was to provide large-scale subsidized farm inputs mainly to peasant farmers. It is FISP that explains Zambia’s maize miracle.

It is FISP that has guaranteed Zambia’s food security in spite of droughts in the intervening years. (Incidentally, and unsurprisingly, the IMF has consistently tried to place FISP on the chopping block. They may very well succeed.

It is this record breaking maize harvest of 2021 that Hichilema’s government inherited after winning the August 2021 presidential elections. In addition, the new government inherited maize stock of 841,000 MT that was brought forward from the previous year (2020) as surplus. Therefore, the total maize supply in the year Hichilema won his first election was 4.5 million MT (the total of 3.62 million MT and 841,000 MT)!

This was more than sufficient for 2021’s consumption given that total consumption (including animal feed and exports) was estimated at 3 million MT, leaving a record surplus of 1.5 million MT to be brought forward into 2022 (the following year).

Immediately, Hichilema’s government began to eye 2021’s surplus as a potential source of export revenues, likely urged on by the likes of the IMF who encouraged government to “take advantage of market opportunities presented by neighbouring countries”.

The new government then began to make policy changes that would increase Zambia’s maize exports.

In their first budget speech delivered in October 2021, barely two months into their administration, the new Minister of Finance scrapped the 10% tax on maize exports that had been in effect since 2017, a tax that likely prevented a hunger crisis in 2019 given that year’s drought.

Parallel to this was a huge public relations effort whose objective was to justify the new policy of encouraging an increase in maize exports (Zambian TikTok user @rooney0303 in a video that has gone viral has compiled some of the statements from various government ministers that were given to justify the policy).

Unsurprisingly, this new policy substantially increased maize exports. Data compiled from the Ministry of Agriculture/Zambia Statistics Agency shows that the volume of maize exports increased by at least 75% from 2021 to 2022!

Data from the Bank of Zambia shows the monetary value of maize export earnings increased from US$49 million in 2021 to US$109 million in 2022, an increase of 122% in a single year!

Much of Zambia’s maize is exported to countries in the region. One such country is Kenya where data from the Kenya Bureau of Statistics shows that maize imports from Zambia increased in value by a whopping 371% in 2022, another incredible number in a single year. (These patterns were likely repeated in other destination countries (DR Congo, Tanzania, etc…) where data is not readily available as is the case with Kenya).

The scale of the policy failure becomes even more evident when one considers that this unprecedented increase in maize exports took place in a year when the country registered one of the biggest declines in maize production.

As earlier stated, 2021 registered record production of 3.62 million MT.

But in 2022 production dropped by close to a million metric tonnes to 2.7 million MT on the back of poor rainfall and the haphazard handling of fertilizer distribution in the 2021/22 farming season, a farming season presided over by Hichilema’s new government.

Huge exports on the one hand and declining production on the other bequeathed to 2023 a smaller surplus than was bequeathed to 2022.

We do not as yet have a complete statistical picture of what took place in 2023 but it is quite clear from statements made by government officials that maize exports might have continued unabated in that year as well.

The sum total of the evidence presented here paints a picture of policy failure as being at the heart of the food disaster declared by the president last Thursday. El Niño has made dire what was already a bad situation.

Bernadette Mwansa Mushinge is an independent researcher with an MSc in Agricultural Sciences from Stellenbosch University. She can be reached at bernadettemushinge@gmail.com.

Grieve Chelwa is Associate Professor of Political Economy at The Africa Institute and non-resident Senior Fellow at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

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