Innovation needed to cope with drought

29 Mar, 2024 - 00:03 0 Views
Innovation needed to cope with drought

eBusiness Weekly

Zimbabwe has suffered one of its worst droughts on record in the present summer season, with all three drought-related problems hitting: a late start to the season, little rain after the third week of January, and totals well below normal despite the heavy month of rain between mid-December and mid-January.

That month of rain was basically the season, but because of the above-normal 2022-2023 season most irrigation dams are nearly full. The carry over supplies plus the fact that the bit of the season that did work produced a lot of run-off meant that dams, at least in the eastern and central parts of the country, have enough water for irrigation.

There are particular problems.

Bulawayo, for example, has its perennial water problems worsened. The small dams that supply the city are inadequate at the best of times, and run-off has been falling for years even in decent seasons.

Water levels go very low between the end of one season and the start of the next, and a bad drought tends to reduce rainfall in Matabeleland South significantly.

But generally farmers have enough irrigation water and a special effort is being made this winter to grow more grain, with an emphasis on wheat, probably for the simple reason that maize is not a great winter crop, even when there is water, so yields of irrigated maize are tricky.

The Government has put in the required measures. There will be some deliveries to the GMB and millers from the farmers who had supplementary irrigation, but it is highly unlikely there will be anything very much from the smallholders.

The best that anyone can hope for is that the natural region two smallholders will at least be able to feed themselves, but the rest of the maize crop, that in parts of region two and most of region three, will be nothing to write home apart unless the farmer had some irrigation capacity.

There will be the usual two main demands. First the Government is going to have to use a lot more maize, and traditional grains, to provide relief food to farming families that have produced nothing or far too little to last a year until the next harvest.

This drought-relief maize demand had been falling sharply with the upgrade in smallholder agriculture, it being better economically as well as cheaper to help effectively with inputs and modern farming methods than give out free food.

But this year the demand will be far higher. Already the GMB carryover stocks, what is called the strategic grain reserve, has been dedicated to relief food and the general expectation is that the Government will have to import quite a lot more maize, a minimum of 400 000 tonnes has been suggested, to maintain the relief supplies.

Then there is the private sector, the millers who produce the maize meal.

These have been buying GMB supplies, which they will not be able to do in the next year, but have under Government pressure been setting up contractual arrangements with the larger farmers, mainly the A2 farmers.

But they have also been told they will have to make their own import arrangements to meet the gap between what they can expect from farmers and what they and the country needs.

Mealie meal demand is likely to rise. Urban families that used to get a bit from rural families will not be getting and in recent years the Government has been keener on monetary payments to the urban vulnerable, so they buy food, rather than dishing out bags of grain or meal.

There are potential problems with the millers importing. There will be a temptation to try and maximise foreign currency payments from retailers, and even to use the tuckshop network more than usual to ensure that.

And some may be tempted to push up profit margins using the excuse of imports.

Certainly they are likely to be blamed for any shortages or price hikes, and it seems essential that all milling companies are able to justify, promptly, to both their customers and to the various State arms that they are behaving properly. So a good business move would be to behave properly and be willing to make public their financial statements.

A very high level of transparency seems to be required. Millers need to remember that they will have the same customers when there is a good season and need to treat those customers as adults and treat them fairly.

This does not mean prices may not rise, but it does mean that every percentage point of any rise needs to be explained and justified. It is likely that the Government will also be looking over their shoulders, so a high level of transparency will meet that auditing as well.

The intention to concentrate a lot of the winter harvest on wheat does make economic sense as well as coping with the different temperature demands of maize and wheat. A wheat harvest of around 600 000 tonnes is planned, and with the carryover stocks from last year that means there could be twice as much wheat available this year as normal demand requires.

Minister of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development Anxious Masuku has suggested three ways of using this huge wheat mountain: exporting excess stock and buying maize; direct swops of wheat for maize; and encouraging Zimbabweans to modify their diets by eating more wheat in the grain mix.

The first two approaches are built around the fact that Zimbabwe does produce a wheat surplus, although this will only be the third year and the first year when that surplus is large.

Zimbabwe is the only country in Southern Africa that has even reached self-sufficiency in wheat, and the only African country besides Ethiopia that has done so. So there are obvious export markets.

The difference between the first two approaches will largely be determined over who has surplus maize and who needs to import wheat, plus whether the surpluses and the wheat demand are managed by a Government or purely by private enterprise.

There is the additional factor of pricing. Zimbabwe offers a premium over world prices to farmers, largely to cover the irrigation costs.

With a pure internal market this premium is justified as it largely negates the higher transport costs, so the final price in Zimbabwe is largely the same.

Exports will add a transport cost to the end buyer, so there might well be a gap between what the Zimbabwean farmers are paid and what the final export price is.

It seems exports should be as far as possible regional to minimise that export transport cost and so minimise the gap.

The idea of getting Zimbabweans to eat more wheat has a lot of merit, as it removes the complexities of pricing calculations.

Most Zimbabweans eat wheat in the form of leavened bread, although there is a reasonable demand for flour for home baking and a growing demand for basic dried pasta, generally spaghetti and macaroni outside the semi-luxury market.

Wheat porridges are hardly eaten and unleavened bread is little known outside the Zimbabweans of south Asian origin.

Bread and demand is unlikely to rise much. It seems a fairly constant volume, fluctuating a bit with price.

So the effort would have to be on getting at least a reasonable number of families to eat more wheat products and cutting back a bit on maize sadza. A lot will depend on marketing and on pricing.

It seems that pasta can be pushed more, as already there is a growing demand. But the price differentials between brands can be large.

There are about two producers that manage to sell a 400g pack of dried pasta for around 50USc, enough for a family meal. Others charge a more and sometimes a lot more.

The 50c cent price seems to be something to keep in mind for others to aim for, although they can meet demand for the fancier formulations but should not expect that demand to rise much.

Recipes for unleavened bread, almost a stable food in parts of the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent, need to be publicised, along with far more recipes for transitional grains and their flours. Demand could be built up with suitable flours packed and sold. It can be made in a heavy frying pan instead of on a large hotplate.

Wheat sadza needs more thought, but again some smart innovation and decent recipes would help.

We need to remember other cultures have changed. Zimbabwe itself largely started switching from traditional grain sadza to maize sadza just a century ago and it took some decades for maize to dominate.

Noodles have been around China for some time, but in Italy they only started becoming part of the diet about 700 years ago, and it was not until a lot of conscripts started returning from service in the armies of united Italy late in the 19th century that many northern Italian families started thinking of pasta as a main dish.

The army liked the convenience of southern pasta dishes and the troops liked the taste.

WE could even find out how many Ethiopians eat wheat, as there it is an old crop rather than freshly introduced in colonial times for leavened bread as is the case in much of Africa. It seems smarter to eat our own food.

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