Africa: Trade Barriers Imperil Food Security

A S.A. trailer crosses into Zimbabwe with supplies

The heaps of groundnuts, rapoko, millet and maize displayed for sale by the side of the Rovuma River in Namiranga are evidence of the fertility of Africa’s soil.

But people in this small town on the Mozambique-Tanzania border struggle to pay for food. The area has been affected by droughts, believed to be worsening as a result of climate change, for the past four years. Namiranga, 3,700 km (2,300 miles) from Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, is largely cut off from basic services and supplies.

Here a 50 kg bag of maize sells for $60. Yet just 20 km (12 miles) away on the Tanzanian side of the border, the same quantity of maize costs only about $46.

Barriers to intraregional trade are preventing food from reaching the poor. On the Tanzanian side of the river, at the Mtwara border post, a truck filled with 40 tonnes of maize destined for Mozambique is stopped. Customs officials tell Petros Lema Sokoineis, the truck’s owner and driver, that the maize cannot leave Tanzania due to an export ban.

“We look for the best markets. If we don’t have exterior markets, we don’t have an incentive to produce. On the national market, we can’t even break even. The prices are not adequate,” says Sokoineis, who has been trading maize in the region since 2000.

Tanzania’s minister for agriculture, food security and cooperatives, Jumanne Maghembe, announced a ban on the export of food stocks, especially maize, to neighbouring countries in June 2011, in order to avert hunger at home.

“Unfortunately, this happens often. Such export bans not only limit access to food, they discourage farmers who are suffering as a result of droughts, floods and unfavourable weather conditions,” says Sokoineis.

Tanzania had a shortfall of more than 410,000 tonnes of grain during the 2010-2011 farming season, according to Maghembe. Government statistics indicate that about 7.2 million tonnes of cereals, mainly maize and rice, are consumed annually, and that 42 districts in 16 regions experienced food shortages.

Export bans are just one example of the problems that constrain regional trade, with a significant impact on regional food security for millions.

Scientists say the South African Development Community (SADC) region is experiencing increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, with more hot days and fewer cold days. The countries most affected are Zimbabwe, northern parts of South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania.

Climate change will have a significant impact on the region’s already vulnerable food security, environmental experts warn. Climate effects are already costing the SADC region between 5 and 10 percent of its GDP, according to Martin de Wit, an economist at South Africa’s University of Stellenbosch.


Since 2007, erratic rainfall has led to increased food shortages in the region as droughts have damaged maize crops. According to researchers at the Climate Systems Analysis Group (CSAG) at the University of Cape Town, southern Africa had a shortfall of more than four million tonnes of maize in 2007-2008.

CSAG estimates that the maize yields in Zimbabwe and South Africa’s Limpopo Province will decrease by approximately 9 percent by 2045, posing a major problem since maize is the region’s primary staple food.

A study undertaken by the Southern Africa Regional Climate Change Programme (RCCP) says that administrative and infrastructure constraints to agricultural trade between SADC member countries are exacerbating food shortages.

The study, Hunger in SADC with Specific Reference to Climate Change, cautions that climate risks must be managed within the context of challenges to trade policies. Despite substantial progress in the liberalisation of trade policy, regional trade is still constrained by temporary import bans on agricultural commodities and inconsistent export and import licensing procedures, according to the RCCP.

“Stocks (of food) could be traded if regional trade regimes were more liberal. The large variation in local prices for staples in the region suggests that in some areas surplus production is sold on saturated or almost saturated markets, while in other places a shortage for products exists,” the report says.

Presenting a brief on the study during the International Food and Water conference held in Pretoria last year, de Wit said the most effective and least costly way to address food imbalances within the region is through increased trade between countries with food surpluses and those with food deficits.

“Such trade would lead to higher prices for agricultural commodities in exporting countries, providing strong incentives for increased production,” said de Wit.

Fidelis Zvomuya, based in Pretoria, South Africa, specializes in environmental reporting. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.