Malawi Seeks Record Corn Imports as El Nino Risks Food Crisis

May 16, 2016 07:00 PM

Malawi’s government is seeking an unprecedented amount of corn to stave off a food crisis after the El Nino-induced drought that’s decimated crops across southern Africa.

The southern African nation wants to buy 1 million metric tons of white corn, its Agriculture Ministry said last week. That’s 10 times more than the U.S. government expects it to import for the entire season. Corn prices in Malawi reached a record in February, according to the United Nations.

The country of 17 million is facing a second year of falling output after the El Nino weather pattern hurt crops across much of southern Africa, where corn is the staple food. That’s prompted the government to declare a state of disaster, with the amount of people going hungry expected to increase substantially.

“It’s a significant amount of maize that they need,” Jonathan Pound, an economist who monitors the region at the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization, said by phone from Rome. “In terms of where they’ll get from, this is a big question” because many surrounding countries are also facing shortfalls in supply, he said.

Malawi’s farmers began harvesting the grain in late April and will probably produce about 2.4 million tons this season, 40 percent less than two years ago, Pound said.

Higher Prices

Corn reached 241 kwacha per kilogram ($8.90 a bushel) in February, according to FAO. While prices retreated since the start of the new harvest, they’re still almost 60 percent higher than at the same time last year. Corn futures in Chicago, the global benchmark, are up 8 percent this year to $3.87 a bushel.

Although Malawi’s smaller-than-normal harvest will help replenish food supplies for a while, the nation wants to import more now before stockpiles tighten again at the end of the year, Pound said. Ethiopia has used similar tactics. It issued tenders since October for more than 1.5 million tons of wheat to secure grain before this summer’s lean season.

Drought has left about 32 million people hungry across southern Africa, the World Food Programme said Thursday. South Africa, the continent’s biggest corn producer, became a net importer in the past season, the first time since 2008. Zambia, one of the few countries in the region to see production rise, suspended corn exports until the end of September to secure domestic supply.

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