The reports of a potential La Niña event during the coming summer months present different risks for Southern and Eastern Africa’s agriculture. For parts of Eastern Africa, the La Niña weather event typically correlates with below-average rainfall in the months December to February.

Meanwhile, the opposite is true for Southern Africa. This is significant for Eastern Africa because it is the period just before the start of the summer grains planting, which is typically in February of each year. Therefore, a La Niña event would increase the risk of yet another poor agricultural harvest for countries in this region.

An overview of the 2019/20 production season

During the 2019/20 season, the major grain-producing and consuming countries in Eastern Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia, had mixed fortunes. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated Kenya’s 2019/20 maize production at 3,4 million tons, down by 11% year-on-year (y/y) on the back of unfavourable weather conditions at the start of the season.

 With Kenya’s annual maize consumption at about 4,7 million tons, the aforementioned production estimate means the country could require imports of about 1,3 million tons within the 2020/21 marketing year, which is still underway.

This was the second consecutive season of large maize imports, as the previous season’s imports amounted to 900 000 tons. The prospects of a La Niña event means that Kenya could remain a nett importer of maize for the third year in a row.

By comparison, however, Ethiopia promises to have a reasonably good maize season in 2019/20, although there is a constant threat of locust invasion. The country’s 2019/20 maize production is estimated at a record of 8,6 million tons, up by just 1% y/y, according to data from the USDA. This will be sufficient to cover the domestic annual consumption needs. Other countries such as Tanzania and Uganda also have a roughly balanced supply for the year. The challenge could arise during the 2020/21 production season.

Large harvests expected in 2020/21 production season

The conditions for Southern Africa could be different. The likelihood of an expected La Niña event, which the Australian Bureau of Meteorology recently increased to around 50% — roughly twice the normal possibility – could lead to increased moisture and potentially higher yields in the 2020/21 production season. 

South Africa and Zambia already saw bumper harvests in major crops and various horticulture produce during the 2019/20 production season. These countries collectively have supplies to fill the shortfall of just over 2 million tons of maize in Southern and Eastern Africa countries in the 2020/21 marketing year, primarily for Kenya and Zimbabwe. This means that the coming season, which could be dominated by a La Niña event will continue from this already favourable path of large harvests in this region.

Risks that could hinder Africa’s agricultural sector

Aside from the climatic weather conditions, there are two additional risks for the agricultural sectors of East and Southern Africa. First, the desert locust swarms that continue to persist in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan could stall the agricultural recovery if not successfully controlled.

On 7 August 2020, the ground and aerial control operations using biopesticides were underway in the countries mentioned above. The progress of this control operations over the coming months will be critical in assessing whether the next season, which begins in February 2021, will be a success. The weather will also have an impact on the locust spread.

Second, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated regulations to curb its spread remain a major risk for agriculture in several countries, specifically among smallholder farmers and informal markets, which thrive on the movement of people. Except for South Africa, the official numbers of the COVID-19 infections remain relatively low in some African countries. It is unclear if the infections will remain under control in the coming months or if there is yet to be a surge or peak, as we have witnessed in various countries.

In the event of a surge in infections, especially if it occurs in the planting period, which is from October in Southern Africa and from February in Eastern Africa, there could be disruptions of activity in the fields. This could be either because of the effect of spreading infections or potential government regulations such as lockdowns and other strict social distancing measures.

The highly mechanised countries are the only ones in which the agricultural activity could be less affected by a potential surge in infections. In the case of Southern and Eastern Africa, only South Africa has such capabilities. This implies that some countries’ agricultural sectors are at risk.

A final thought

The same is true for informal agriculture and food markets, which are quite common in various African countries. Ultimately, these climate conditions and virus risks would weigh on agricultural output and farm profitability in 2020/21 season, and in turn, the livelihoods of those who mostly depend on the sector.

That said, while the climate and the pandemic’s evolution in the coming months are critical, the uncertainty surrounding both remains high. Therefore, these risks warrant close monitoring in the weeks and months ahead. – Wandile Sihlobo, Agbiz

Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist at Agbiz, shares highlights in his update on agricultural commodity markets. Click here for the full report on agricultural markets for the major commodities.

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