Botswana is taking the unprecedented step of seeking grain imports from Australia and Brazil after the El Nino weather phenomenon caused the worst drought in 40 years. 

With the drought having devastated the crop in Botswana and its southern African neighbors, the Botswana Agricultural Marketing Board said the state grain security agency, which is responsible for maintaining strategic reserves, was turning to seaborne trade for both corn and sorghum. Imports secured from neighboring Zimbabwe and South Africa was deemed insufficient.

“We continue to explore countries afar, such as Brazil and Australia,” Adelaide Johnson, spokeswoman for the the Botswana Agricultural Marketing Board, said in a response to queries. “The plan is to import regionally and internationally to augment the little harvest expected.” 

The step is another sign of the devastation the drought is causing across the region. On Monday the 16-nation Southern African Development Community appealed for at least $5.5 billion in assistance to cope with droughts and floods caused by El Nino.

Zimbabwean millers have said they may tap corn supplies from Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Argentina and the US, while South Africa could import white corn for the first time since 2017. 

Botswana hasn’t imported corn from Brazil, which is currently the world’s biggest exporter, since at least 2003, according to International Trade Centre data. And of the 3.3 million tons the country imported between 2003 and 2022, almost all came from South Africa and just 70 tons came from outside Africa. 

Imports from outside the continent “would be super unusual,” said Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa. “Given the extent of drought this year, it is understandable that Botswana would look for grain imports from the likes of Australia and Brazil.”

Australia is the world’s second-biggest sorghum exporter, according to the World Bank. Corn and sorghum are used to make staple foods in Botswana.

Heat Stress

Botswanan farmers slashed the area planted with summer crops by almost two thirds to just over 98,000 hectares (242,000 acres) in the season just ended, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. 

“Chances of the country having a successful harvest are minimal. More so that most of the area planted is maize crop which is susceptible to heat damage,” the ministry said in a statement using a term for corn. “Some crops such as maize have reached permanent wilting point.”

The Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development is finalizing a countrywide assessment of crop yields and food security issues. President Mokgweetsi Masisi will use the assessment to decide whether to declare a drought emergency. Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia have already declared national states of disaster because of the drought.