Swaziland's anticipated maize harvest this year will be double the size it was in 2007, when drought devastated the crop, but still not enough. According to UN estimates, over 20 percent of the country's one million people face the possibility of going hungry.
Output of the local staple, maize, is projected at 64,000 tonnes this season, meaning that the "total cereal import requirement in the 2008/09 marketing year (April/March) is ... about 136,000 tonnes," said a joint assessment by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the UN World Food Programme (WFP).
"Last year  was a real dip, and this year seems to be more normal," John Weatherson, FAO Emergency Coordinator in Swaziland, told IRIN. The crop and food supply assessment mission to Swaziland (CFSAM), released on 4 July, noted that if the country could import 129,000 tonnes commercially, the WFP would be able to cover the cereal deficit of 7,500 tonnes "with in-country stocks and quantities in the pipeline".
Affordability would present a major challenge: "It is estimated that about 210,000 people [will be] food insecure during the 2008/09 marketing year," the report said, adding that "rapidly soaring food prices are seriously eroding food access for the poor and vulnerable groups."
You can't take out what you don't put in
Southern Africa has suffered seven years of chronic food insecurity, but Weatherson said Swaziland could easily meet its own food requirements if more of its agricultural land were used. "It is easy to be self-sufficient - only 50 to 60 percent of available land was planted to maize this season," he told IRIN.
A number of factors prevented farmers from maximising their yield: "persistent drought discourages people from planting," Weatherson commented, while the "astronomical" costs of machinery and fuel for tilling the land, together with inputs such as fertiliser, meant they could not plant enough during the season.
According to Weatherson, the high input prices showed no sign of coming down anytime soon: the cost of fertiliser had gone up by around 150 percent in roughly nine months, and would be even higher when the main planting season arrived in October/November.
Swaziland's maize crop was devastated by a prolonged dry spell and high temperatures in 2007, resulting in the lowest annual harvest on record.
About 40 percent the population faced acute food and water shortages, and the UN appealed to the international donor community for some US$19 million to avert a full-blown humanitarian crisis in the drought-stricken kingdom.
Poor rainfall at the beginning of 2008 raised fears that the extremely low production of 2006/07, when authorities declared a national disaster, might be repeated, prompting the Swaziland government to call for the assessment.