Friday, April 12, 2024

Policy Failure caused Zambia’s Food Crisis


By Bernadette Mwansa Mushinge and Grieve Chelwa

This past Thursday, president Hakainde Hichilema addressed the nation and declared a National Disaster in light of a prolonged dry spell that will affect this year’s agriculture output, especially that of maize which is Zambia’s staple food. In his address, the president appealed for help “calling upon [Zambia’s] partners, local and international, to avail food and other support that they may have, in order to provide the needed relief.” This is the first time in a long time that the country has declared a national disaster related to food leaving many to wonder what might have gone wrong.

To be sure, president Hichilema is correct in his assertion that the El Niño-induced dry spell will greatly affect this year’s maize production. But where he is wrong is in asserting that the dry spell alone explains the hunger crisis that the country will face this year. As we show below, the looming hunger crisis, which sparked last Thursday’s desperate plea for help, was caused by policy failure on the part of the Zambian government whose chief executive is Hichilema himself.

The story of Zambia’s maize production over the last 20 years or so has been nothing short of a miracle. Between 2001 and 2021, the country more than tripled its maize output. According to data from Zambia’s Ministry of Agriculture as reported by FAOSTAT, total maize production in 2001 stood at just under 1 million metric tonnes (MT). By 2021, that number had grown to 3.62 million MT making that year’s output the biggest in the country’s history. As is always the case, miracles of this scale (just like disasters) have much to do with government policy. In 2002, the Zambian government, then under the leadership of Levy Mwanawasa, introduced the Farm Input Support Programme (FISP) that was to provide large-scale subsidized farm inputs mainly to peasant farmers. It is FISP that explains Zambia’s maize miracle. It is FISP that has guaranteed Zambia’s food security in spite of droughts in the intervening years. (Incidentally, and unsurprisingly, the IMF has consistently tried to place FISP on the chopping block. They may very well succeed).

It is this record breaking maize harvest of 2021 that Hichilema’s government inherited after winning the August 2021 presidential elections. In addition, the new government inherited maize stock of 841,000 MT that was brought forward from the previous year (2020) as surplus. Therefore, the total maize supply in the year Hichilema won his first election was 4.5 million MT (the total of 3.62 million MT and 841,000 MT)! This was more than sufficient for 2021’s consumption given that total consumption (including animal feed and exports) was estimated at 3 million MT, leaving a record surplus of 1.5 million MT to be brought forward into 2022 (the following year).

Immediately, Hichilema’s government began to eye 2021’s surplus as a potential source of export revenues, likely urged on by the likes of the IMF who encouraged government to “take advantage of market opportunities presented by neighbouring countries”. The new government then began to make policy changes that would increase Zambia’s maize exports. In their first budget speech delivered in October 2021, barely two months into their administration, the new Minister of Finance scrapped the 10% tax on maize exports that had been in effect since 2017, a tax that likely prevented a hunger crisis in 2019 given that year’s drought. Parallel to this was a huge public relations effort whose objective was to justify the new policy of encouraging an increase in maize exports (Zambian TikTok user @rooney0303 in a video that has gone viral has compiled some of the statements from various government ministers that were given to justify the policy).

Unsurprisingly, this new policy substantially increased maize exports. Data compiled from the Ministry of Agriculture/Zambia Statistics Agency shows that the volume of maize exports increased by at least 75% from 2021 to 2022! Data from the Bank of Zambia shows the monetary value of maize export earnings increased from US$49 million in 2021 to US$109 million in 2022, an increase of 122% in a single year!

Much of Zambia’s maize is exported to countries in the region. One such country is Kenya where data from the Kenya Bureau of Statistics shows that maize imports from Zambia increased in value by a whopping 371% in 2022, another incredible number in a single year. (These patterns were likely repeated in other destination countries (DR Congo, Tanzania, etc…) where data is not readily available as is the case with Kenya).

The scale of the policy failure becomes even more evident when one considers that this unprecedented increase in maize exports took place in a year when the country registered one of the biggest declines in maize production. As earlier stated, 2021 registered record production of 3.62 million MT. But in 2022 production dropped by close to a million metric tonnes to 2.7 million MT on the back of poor rainfall and the haphazard handling of fertilizer distribution in the 2021/22 farming season, a farming season presided over by Hichilema’s new government.

Huge exports on the one hand and declining production on the other bequeathed to 2023 a smaller surplus than was bequeathed to 2022. We do not as yet have a complete statistical picture of what took place in 2023 but it is quite clear from statements made by government officials that maize exports might have continued unabated in that year as well.

The sum total of the evidence presented here paints a picture of policy failure as being at the heart of the food disaster declared by the president last Thursday. El Niño has made dire what was already a bad situation.

Bernadette Mwansa Mushinge is an independent researcher with an MSc in Agricultural Sciences from Stellenbosch University. She can be reached at [email protected].

Grieve Chelwa is Associate Professor of Political Economy at The Africa Institute and non-resident Senior Fellow at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.


  1. Some really badly slanted trash article. When we had power issues due to drought why didn’t these fake researchers blame bad policy by ECL ?

    • Why would we listen to people who come from areas where they have never produced maize, in spite of having the best rains in Southern Africa, tell us anything about agriculture? Get out of here

    • There is no food crises in Zambia.
      STOP using LT for prostitution, find better jobs like farming. No farmer is a prostitute.

  2. There you have it!! We told you that the privatization genius is just a fraud. Most of the decisions that he’s made can’t come from an educated technocrat. We earlier said on this forum that the man isn’t as clever as he and his supporters project. Last year FRA managed to buy a paltry 341,000 tons of maize, so it’s likely we produced less than a million all due to poor input distribution. Millers and grain traders don’t have the capacity to buy and store large quantities of maize. Simply put, he’s failed

    • Motherfaka HH does not create rain. HH does not need to justify anything in agriculture to you. If you are 5’6 in height, the people of Southern Province are responsible for half of it, because without their maize and meat, you would be half the height, so shut the fack up.

  3. Zambia is cursed…. look at all the presidents we have had since 1992. They spend time fighting the opposition. Even their ministers have followed suit, Mweetwa, Haimbe, Mwiimbu mention them…they spend time frustrating the opposition.

    • You presidents messed up due to incompetence, corruption, and above all tribalism, particularly from Frederick Chipuba, who sabotaged agriculture in Southern Province, the breadbasket of Zambia. What is happening here is a NATURAL disaster. Sh!t happens; the weather happens. Blame the white people for this sh!t. They are the ones who have warmed up the planet with their wanton consumption, and caused a shift in the climate. That is it, that is all.

  4. We have a proven fraud as head of state. He started with privatization now he has come back for the maize he did not even grow. Then some f00lish praise singers like Mzambia+wa+Zamani still can not get it through their thick tribal scalps.

  5. This research does little justice to the huge advantages that the export earnings for maize has had. The $109 million you report for 2022 was quite substantial. The good agriculture policy of UPND was heading us to a bumper harvest in the 2023/2024 season. It has just been hampered by El Niño, an act of God. Next time El Niño disappears government must work towards another bumper harvest and export even more maize to increase our foreign currency reserves and economic diversification

    • Easier said than done…. PF and those before always had in mind that phenomenas like El Nino were possible so they made sure our stocks were full to capacity. Enter the most intelligent person in the world…. he says he can fix anything including El Nino and here we’re

  6. This is our problem. We don’t engage in patriotic & problem solving discourse. Instead we engage in insults. What are we going to reap from insults? I see nothing wrong with Mwelwa and Mushinge(M&M) article. It goes far back as 2001and is grounded in numbers. Numbers don’t lie unless they are cooked. I would encourage M&M to extrapolate to 2030 or even 2040 and most importantly state what NEEDS TO BE DONE to get into surplus position and spin off industries from such growth. This drought is a crisis & yet it presents an opportunity to actualize the much talked about irrigation potential & abundant water bodies that zambia has. Solar power as well. I am tired of talking about POTENTIAL. I would like to see ACTION.

  7. Zambia does not have a food crisis yet….the maize crop just failed this year. We did not have EL Nino in 2022-2023 farming season but floods instead
    What these so called researchers are calling food crisis is the removal of subsidies and allowing the maize to trade at market price.
    Thats not a food crisis.

    • El Niño, the Little Boy, either brings no rains as DROUGHT or excessive rains in FLOODS. Either way, most crops never survive in such extreme weather conditions. So you are arguing to yourself without disernment when you say Zambia ONLY had floods. Similarly you are wrong by saying you only sold maize at market price. Firstly, you needed to add value to the maize you sold to give jobs to our millers than selling raw materials. Secondly, how do you sell your good maize to Congo, then you flock to RSA to buy for both Zambian and your neighbours? That route is tactless, wreckless.

  8. @muzambian..It has just been hampered by El Niño, an act of God.



    What measures did UPND take to mitigate the dry spell? Forget about PF who are not in charge.

    • I don’t understand why these amateur club members always want to blame PF for everything. If you buy a car on as is basis you can’t go and accuse the vendor if the car fails. These people knew the status of our economy but they kept on telling us that they fix it within weeks or even hours.

    • My my post and think. However, note that while foreign organizations and creditors were unwilling to help with PF corruption and mismanagement, the same organizations are willing to help with the natural disaster .And please don’t bring the imperialist, colonialist talk to me

    • @muzambian

      It’s not necessary for me to reread your comment. I comprehended it the first time before responding to it. The trouble is that you want me to understand it in your self-praise subjective way. That’s not how it goes. Your point was well-articulated. Others also expressed their thoughts. I am grateful for your reply, my friend. Remember that imperialism and colonialism are neither here nor there, so don’t freak out when challenged.

  9. DejaFOOOOL.Its because people like you do not understand the depth and width of the damage done to this country by PF. The mismanagement, corruption, thuggery set us back for at least ten years of development. The rot was so thorough it cut across all of the Zambian social fabric starting at the individual, family, education, religion, organizations and industry. Zambians were so traumatized that they lost their national ethos. What was wrong was seen as normal..We even admired thieves and accepted lawlessness
    For as long as you keep referring to what “good” the PF did, people will never stop reminding you that the present malaise has its genesis in PF

  10. This government led by H.E. the President Hakainde Hichilema tabangasha inchito. You think that the cost of 50kg white Maize to have been pegged at K280.00 was kwangala? Just keep your ears to the ground, people.

  11. Lets stop thinking in 5 years election cycles like our politicians do. Lets plan for 2030 or even 2040. Less capital intensive & drought resistant cassava, millet, sorghum etc is the answer for the subsistence of our rural folks. It’s a fallacy to dream that they can be weaned off maize subsidies and be as productive as commercial farmers after 60 years of subsidies. It is suicidal to pin our food security on this extremely vulnerable type of agriculture. Bear in mind that our population is growing and urbanising. Subsidies are unsustainable in the long term except in situations like this; drought. Th authors/authors need to go beyond criticism but offer solutions. Otherwise they will be deemed to no different from the likes of Fred Mmembe and Chilufya Tayali.

  12. @Swahili for the unity of Africa.

    That’s a valid point, comrade. Constructive criticism. However, even if they offered a sound solution, who would buy it? Leaders don’t want to feel outsmarted by the opposition. Can someone show me any advice from organizations or people seeming opposite that has been taken? Already here these co-authors have been insulted, stripped like they aren’t humans just because they aren’t UPND allied It is easier to listen to politicians like Nevers or Sampa than from technical experts called Mwansa Mushinge and Grieve Chelwa.

  13. @My Zambia.
    Simply admitting that my point is well articulated without, at least paraphrasing what I meant means you did not understand me.
    The language of “Imperialism and colonialism” died with great political liberators like KK, Nyerere,Nkrumah,Selasie, castro and others.Today we fight for socio-economic justice in a Neo-Liberalist world order.There is no clear distinction between the oppressed and the oppressor.Objectives are achieved by co-operation,and dialog through mutual respect.This is well understood by new younger leaders like Ruto,HH,Kagame late Gengobe. not ECL or Membe

  14. @muzambian
    You are awash with innuendos. The choice of leaders you choose cannot be dictated to others. Your tastes are distinct from those of others. The current leadership will be replaced, whether you like it or not. Even if you don’t like Zambia’s eventual leader, you will still be a satellite state. Colonialism and Imperialism are here to stay. East and West keep taking turns pushing their agendas from your current or next leader. Ruto, Hichilema, and Kagame are not a cure-all. They are mere stooges for empire builders abroad. Take note of my words and please don’t choke when Mmembe with things equal shocks you the same way HH shocked the PF.

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