Drought in Zambia, maize output could fall by half due to unpredictable weather

Due to a prolonged drought in Zambia, maize production could fall from the current 3.6 million tonnes to 1.8-2 million tonnes this crop season if the current dry spell which the nation is experiencing continues.

Zambia’s maize production may drop around 50 per cent in the current 2017-2018 crop season if a dry spell that the nation is experiencing continues, an industry body has warned. “A devastating El Niño-induced drought, which affected an estimated 40 million people across the region in 2016 is likely to hit the region again during the 2017-18 farming season,” the Southern African Development Community (SADC), an inter-governmental development organisation that fosters integration and cooperation among 16 southern African states, stressed.

maize zambia farmer field
Laurence Banda holds a maize cob in Lusaka it his field © Lauren Miti

Drought in Zambia and dependence on rain-fed maize

The crop production season runs from October-November when the land is prepared and planting is carried out, to March-April when the crops are ready to be harvested in almost all regions. Small-scale farmers contribute more than half of the consumed calories in the country.

Two years ago, maize production rose to 3.6 million tonnes in the 2016-2017 season, from 2.9 million tonnes the previous season. But pundits say, the fluctuations in production from one year to another is one of the consequences of the country’s sole dependence on maize, the country’s staple food.

Maize crops in most parts of Zambia is wilting ©  Alick Phiri
Maize crops in most parts of Zambia are wilting © Alick Phiri

Calvin Kaleyi, a spokesperson for the Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU) stressed that a lot of the maize crop in the country’s key production areas has wilted because of drought, adding that this is likely to hit the harvest. “If this trend continues, we’re in trouble. We may be lucky to hit 1.8-2 million tonnes of maize,” he continued.

How the conditions for vegetation have deteriorated

Experts at the SADC secretariat have expressed fears that low rainfall in the region has led to delays in planting as well as crop moisture stress in some areas. “The vegetation conditions have deteriorated in the southern and eastern part of the region,” experts warn in the Food Security Early Warning System Agromet Update.

farm Zambia spraying against armyworms
Workers on Mike Mtonga’s farm in Zambia spraying against armyworms © Mike Mwenda

Small-Scale Farmers Development Agency (SAFADA) director Boyd Moobwe said the persistence of dry weather across the country, coupled with the high prices of farming inputs, were taking a huge blow on subsistence farmers and creating some concern for the sustainability of the sector. “Extreme weather conditions result in decreased access to water, high risk of disease and damage to agricultural land and crops; a situation which has the potential to impact on the country’s food security,” he said.

Minister of Agriculture Dora Siliya (left) taking part in spraying of armyworm worms © Zambia Daily Mail
Minister of Agriculture Dora Siliya (left) taking part in a spraying of pesticides to tackle the armyworm outbreak © Zambia Daily Mail

Armyworm and droughts upsetting farmers

Amidst the dry spell, farmers in the country are battling an outbreak of the fall armyworm insect that has affected some parts of the country: a situation that has prompted Zambian President Edgar Lungu to deploy the country’s military personnel to spray pesticides on maize fields.

Read more: How agricultural chemicals are poisoning our world. And all the (false) myths about them

El Niño - devastating impact on southern Africa's harvests and food security © European Commission
El Niño has a devastating impact on southern Africa’s harvests and food security © European Commission

“I can assure you that we have enough maize in stock and no one will go hungry despite the disappointing rains we’re facing,” Lungu said. However, Zambia is periodically hit by food shortages as the tropical southern Africa country relies heavily on rain-fed agriculture and half of the maize is grown on small-scale plots by subsistence farmers.

Gerald Mumba, a farmer who lives in Chibombo district, 88 kilometres north of the capital Lusaka says: “My maize is wilting, the pests are destroying the crops; I fear that my family may starve”.

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