There is growing concern over the government's failure to release the scheduled official crop figures for the 2006/7 agricultural farming season, which are now more than a week overdue.
"This delay is making it difficult for us to plan ahead in terms of maintaining the prices of mealie meal [ground maize meal] in that we don't know how much crop is out there exactly. We have been assured by the government that there's a good crop but that's only as far as we've been told," Peter Cottan, vice president of the Millers Association of Zambia, told IRIN. "Of course, a number of millers are still hoarding some maize stocks from last year, but we still need the estimates for the new crop before we can decide on how best to maintain or adjust the prices [of mealie meal]."
The recent price volatility of maize meal saw its price increase at least three times in the last quarter of 2006, with a 25kg bag selling for as much as US$11, making it unaffordable for the majority of the population, two thirds of which live on a $1 or less a day.
"Most of us can't afford a 25kg bag of mealie meal because we have no money. and there are no jobs, we are forced to buy pamelas (the local name for 1kg mealie meal packs) every day. We don't see the reason for celebrating the (past) national bumper harvests announced by the government as mealie meal prices always remain expensive," Martha Daka, a street trader in the capital Lusaka, said.
Even without an accurate assessment of the expected harvest, the government has begun exports to neighbouring Zimbabwe, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Agriculture minister Ben Kapita told local media recently that about 700 tonnes of maize from the latest harvest had already been exported to Zimbabwe, with a further 300,000 tonnes earmarked for export to provide Zambia with foreign exchange.
"We have allowed this exportation of part of our surplus crop through our various co-operating partners purely as a way of getting more value from our crop," Kapita said.
According to Kapita, the government's Food Reserve Agency was expected to export 226,000 tonnes to raise money for the purchase of crops from local farmers, while the Zambia National Farmers Union, the millers association and the Grain Traders Association would export about 48,000 tonnes in total.
Kapita said the delayed release of government's crop assessment was because "I simply haven't got the figures as yet on my table! We released the money late for this exercise and I am very sure that the field officers would only be coming from the fields about now. We need a bit of time before they can compile the figures, but I will certainly be informing the nation as soon as they are ready."
Zambia has over the last three years posted a surplus harvest on the back of a number of reforms introduced by the former agriculture minister Mundia Sikatana, now foreign affairs minister, which included subsidising farming inputs by 60 percent, buying off the crop from small-scale farmers and encouraging conservation farming practices.
But, although the country in 2006 posted a crop surplus of 300,000 tonnes above its annual consumption requirement of 1.2 million tonnes, analysts said the torrential rains late last year and earlier this year, which swamped thousands of fields in at least five of the nine provinces, would likely hit maize production. About 1.4 million people were affected by the flooding and about 300,000 people, mostly in the agricultural producing rural areas, required food aid.
While president Levy Mwanawasa's administration has generally drawn praise for its agricultural reforms, farmers have alleged that the government was giving them a raw deal by fixing the maize marketing price at a non-negotiable US$9 per 50kg bag.
"We find the pricing of maize unfair in many ways, and discouraging to the farmers too," Guy Robinson, president of the Zambia National Farmers Union said. "It costs us a lot to produce the crop but the price at which we are required to sell it does not tally with the cost of production. We are urgently calling for the establishment of an independent crop costing exercise to critically look at the cost of production for maize against the price at which we are selling the crop."