MBABANE, 28 Jul 2005 (IRIN) - Swaziland is in the grip of another food crisis but farmers say they cannot plant more maize, the country's staple food, as it is not profitable.
"I am in good health and we had good rains in this area this year, but I still won't grow more maize if I cannot recover the cost of fertiliser, tractor rental and transport to market," said small-scale landholder Thulaziswe Simelane, whose family farm lies 20 km south of the central commercial town, Manzini.
HIV/AIDS and a recurring drought have had a negative impact on the agricultural sector: the disease has claimed farm family heads, leaving behind children and the elderly, who cannot cultivate the land.
The effect has been a decline in food production, in a country that was a net exporter of agricultural products 30 years ago.
According to a crop and food supply assessment by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP), the reform of maize pricing was also a factor in Swaziland's inadequate food production.
The assessment at the end of the 2005 harvest in May noted that 106,000 mt of maize would have to be imported during the 2005/06 marketing year, to feed about 250,000 Swazis currently receiving some form of food assistance - about a quarter of the population - and that maize prices paid to farmers had been slightly lower than last year.
However, at Lilangeni 950 (US $143) per metric tonne, the maize price in Swaziland was nearly double the Lilangeni 550 ($82) it cost across the border in South Africa, according to Ngwane Mills, the country's largest miller.
The agriculture ministry blamed outmoded techniques for farmers' inability to make a profit on maize.
But some of Simelane's complaints were validated last week in a report by the Swaziland Investment Promotion Authority, which found that transportation costs in Swaziland were among the highest in the southern African region.
Milled maize cost Swazi consumers four times the amount that millers paid farmers for their grain.
The National Milling Corporation, a government parastatal, set prices at an amount that reflected the milling, transport and packaging costs of consumer-ready maize-meal, while the ministry of agriculture set the price paid to maize growers.
Higher prices for mealie-meal (milled maize) had prompted some households to turn to rice and other replacement grains, the FAO/WFP study found. In the face of a declining national economy some families had cut back on their total food consumption.
Inadequate food intake would compromise people living with HIV/AIDS, the ministry of health warned.
The FAO/WFP report blamed high local milling costs for the rise in mealie-meal prices. "Milling prices tend to be too high for poor households, which therefore have difficulties accessing adequate supplies," the report concluded.
Because of Swaziland's higher maize prices compared to those of foreign suppliers, WFP and other food aid organisations have sourced their maize purchases outside the country.
Simelane's neighbour, Mfanisibili Dube, was upset to find that it was "impossible" to grow more maize without losing money, leading him to remark, "But we still have all these Swazis who need maize or they will starve - something is not right if we cannot feed our own people."
At a job summit this week in Manzini, King Mswati III said agriculture was the bedrock of the Swazi economy. "We should concentrate on what we know and can do best as a nation, and that is agriculture. We want to increase our agricultural processing capacity so that we add value to all our commodities."
The king committed his government to signing trade protocols with foreign markets to give Swazi farmers an outlet for their products.
Prime Minister Themba Dlamini said food self-sufficiency remained the immediate goal. "Swaziland has abundant and rich alluvial soils, and there is great potential to ensure that the country is self-sufficient in food. Food security is key in the survival of any country."
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