White maize shortage looms

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Bereng Mpaki

CONSUMERS must brace for a shortage of white mealie meal in the coming months, as food producers battle the effects of drought and rising input costs.

According to Lesotho Flour Mills (LFM) Managing Director, Ron Mills, a shortage of the commodity looms after the southern Africa region experienced its driest year on record in 2015 due to El Niño.

El Niño is a periodic climatic phenomenon characterised by inadequate rain in some parts of the world and floods in others. In Lesotho, El Niño’s combination of very hot and dry conditions between December 2015 and January 2016 drastically reduced agricultural yields and left thousands food insecure.

White maize is made into papa, the main source of calories for many households. At the height of the drought conditions in December, the price of maize shot up from M3 000 to M5 250 per tonne – which is a record spike.

It has since gone down to M4 500 per tonne, but LFM had to adjust the prices of their mealie meal, flour and animal feeds by over 10 percent in February.

Mr Mills said LFM produces an average of 72 000 tonnes of white mealie meal per annum, with 2 000 tonnes sourced from local farmers, while the rest emanates from South Africa.

However, the neighbouring country is also facing acute shortages of the commodity, and has had to import white maize from Mexico and the United States.

“A real scramble for white maize is likely to start around September this year and last until May 2016. We are in for very tough times,” he said.

“This is because by September we would have depleted all our maize reserves, and that will be the time when we start importing more raw materials.”

Mr Mills said subsidising the price of maize meal would be a good idea, since the high maize meal prices were likely to prevail at least until the harvest of 2017.

“There seems to be a lot of talk in the media about the need to subsidise the maize meal price,” he said.

“I think it can be really helpful this year because this is an unusual situation we have never encountered. Nobody who is alive right now has ever seen anything like this before, because you have to go as far back as 1904 when they started tracking weather patterns.

“So we are expecting the prices of maize to be the same until May next year.”

Mr Mills said despite the welcome rains that have been falling since February this year, the damage was likely to have already been done.

“Estimates of this year’s harvest indicate it is going to be a very bad year, although nobody is certain at this point on what the actual harvest will be. We can only find that out around June and July,” he said.

“But, as it is, we can only hope that next year’s harvest will improve, because that is the only way the prices can go down.”

The loti’s slump against other major currencies also negatively affected the prices of imported goods, he added.

“The constant increase in the cost of everything has also contributed to the rise in prices. A manufacturing company like ours is greatly affected by the prices of raw materials, electricity, packaging, transport, labour, repairs and maintenance among others.

“Unfortunately, electricity has been going up for years and packaging costs have also gone up in the last few years. This is because they are all tied to the rand which has been going on a tailspin in the last few years. These are variables we have no control over.”

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