Why Swaziland’s maize pricing needs a revamp

While Swaziland’s soaring HIV prevalence and the spending habits of King Mswati III are issues that often land the country in the headlines, problems also loom on another front: about a quarter of Swazis are currently dependent on international food aid.

Just more than 100 000 tonnes of the staple food, maize, will have to be imported in the coming months, according to a crop assessment undertaken by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in April and May.

However, dealing with maize shortages will require more than a break in the prolonged drought that has plagued Swaziland — or even a steady supply of anti-retrovirals to ensure that HIV-positive farmers remain productive for longer. (Swaziland currently has the world’s highest HIV prevalence, of 38,8% — according to the Joint UN Programme on HIV/Aids.)

“There is an urgent need to reform the country’s existing pricing and marketing policies for maize,” notes the FAO/WFP report.

Others agree.

“Even with normal rainfall and an end to Aids, the maize pricing system is discouraging subsistence farmers from becoming commercial farmers, and expanding their production,” says Mandla Lushaba, a field officer with the ministry of agriculture. “There is no question that this country can produce more, and can consume all that it produces.”

Tony Pitts, operations manager at Ngwane Mills in Matsapha — an industrial estate near the commercial hub of Manzini — says farmers are currently paid about $140 (about R930) per tonne of maize. This price is set by the government.

However, some say a price of close on $165 (R1 090) per tonne is needed for maize farming to become commercially viable.

“It is a waste to send maize to the market for nothing. Transport prices are high,” farmer Amos Nkhambule says. “What I grow, I grow to feed my family. That is the Swazi way, the way we have always lived. I do not trust the market.”

Still, notes Pitts, “The price [of $140] is nearly double the price of maize in South Africa: R550 per tonne.”

As a result, the WFP and other aid agencies purchase their supplies from the neighbouring state rather than locally, to the anger of Swazi farmers.

Matters needn’t be so, says Lushaba.

“There is a reason why South African farmers can produce maize at half the price paid to Swazi farmers, who say they cannot survive on what they are paid,” he notes.

“There is a need for modern production of scale — where small farms combine their fields into cooperatives for greater production — and the introduction of new hybrid seeds, irrigation to free farmers from dependence on rainfall, and education in basic business practices,” Lushaba adds.

“The problem is not just the pricing and marketing of maize.”

If farmers say they are paid too little for maize, consumers complain of being overcharged — prompting some to point a finger at the country’s millers.

“Milling prices tend to be too high for poor households, which therefore have difficulties accessing adequate supplies,” says the FAO/WFP report. Swazis pay four times more for milled maize than farmers are paid for the grain they sell to millers.

However, the National Milling Corporation, a government parastatal that sets maize meal prices, says the amount charged to consumers is a fair reflection of what it costs to mill, transport and package maize.

In the absence of agricultural reform, the prospects for maize production in this country of nearly one million do not seem especially promising.

“From a longer-term perspective, maize production in Swaziland appears to be on the decline,” observes the FAO/WFP study.

Elsewhere in Southern Africa, food shortages have also been reported in a continuation of the crisis that first came to international attention three years ago.

The WFP noted earlier this month that about 10-million people in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe will require aid in the year ahead. The agency blamed regional food shortages on poor weather conditions, a lack of seed and fertilizer, poverty — and Aids.

Southern Africa includes nine of the 10 countries with the highest Aids infection rates in the world.

“In the worst-hit areas, the virus’ debilitating effects mean farmers can’t plant their land, let alone obtain seeds and fertilisers. Agricultural knowledge traditionally passed down from generation to generation is being lost,” said the WFP in its July 7 press statement. — IPS

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