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ZIMBABWE. Drought gives way to a grain glut

The drought that forced most of southern Africa to import grain has been followed by two good seasons -- and two big grain surpluses for many countries. But for much of this surplus there are no obvious export markets in sight.

In Zimbabwe, for instance, maize deliveries doubled from less than 1 million tons in 1984 to 1.8 million tons last year. It is still too early to make accurate forecasts for 1986, but signs indicate that, although some crops have been damaged by water-logging, grain supplies surpass demands. Other countries in the region are expected to be largely self-sufficient, with the exception of Mozambique.

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Zimbabwe is expected to end the 1985 delivery season with a stockpile of some 1.5 million tons of maize. To this can be added a further surplus, expected to be at least 750,000 tons, pushing the maize stock-pile by the end of 1986 to more than 2.2 million tons -- equivalent to between two and three years' annual consumption.

Such a stockpile has far-reaching economic reverberations. Zimbabwe probably does not have enough storage facilities to hold the crop. And opportunities for exporting the surplus are limited. Total exports last year are estimated at below 200,000 tons; prospects for 1986 are even worse. This is because the region is expected to be mostly self-sufficient and because, with the plunge in the rand, South Africa can supply regional markets at a lower price than Zimbabwe or Malawi.

A stockpile of 2.2 million tons will tie up some $250 million in bank credit and cost Zimbabwe's state-owned grain marketing board over $30 million annually in interest charges. To this must be added storage costs and the fact that the government will be paying farmers for unsold maize, thereby imposing a bigger subsidy burden on itself.

One obvious option pursued last year by Zimbabwe was the swapping of maize for wheat (a crop in which Zimbabwe is not self-sufficient). But to supply the maize to food-deficient states elsewhere in Africa requires transport and financial burdens beyond most food-surplus nations' capabilities.

Africa's surplus grain producers would like to sell more to famine relief agencies. But transport bottlenecks, the fact that some donor countries are themselves surplus grain producers, overvalued exchange rates, and high transport costs militate against this option to varying degrees.

Ironically, many of the bilateral and multilateral agriculture and financial aid agencies have enthusiastically canvased the ``green revolution'' option as the route to economic development in sub-Saharan Africa. But events of the last two years suggest that, even where African countries succeed with such a strategy, they still run up against economic protectionism in the industrial countries.

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