In its latest Africa report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said good harvests were expected in the Sahel region below the Sahara desert, after a severe food crisis in 2004/05 which hit income and nutrition levels hard.
  
The 2005 harvest was also generally better than last year in eastern Africa, and food availability was expected to improve in most countries, although malnutrition rates were still high in several states because of war and past droughts.

"Cereal import requirements in sub-Saharan Africa in 2005/06 are expected to remain high," FAO said.

Total food aid needs in 2004/05 were estimated at 3.3 million tonnes, about the same as in 2003/04.

Food insecurity was of "serious concern" in southern Africa.

Grain scarcity

Shortages of seeds and fertiliser
were reported in Zimbabwe

FAO said shortages of key farm inputs such as seeds and fertiliser were reported in Zimbabwe, where only half of the 50,000 tonnes of maize seed normally required was thought to be available locally.

Fertiliser companies estimated that this year about 75% of last year's much reduced amount of fertiliser may be available at much higher prices.
 
With access to food also hampered by the scarcity of grain on the market, high inflation, fuel and transport problems, maize prices have rocketed, increasing fourfold between June and October this year.

Some three million people will receive monthly rations of cereals and pulses from the UN World Food Programme.

Record maize crop

In Malawi, maize prices also continue to rise and food insecurity is worsening. So far commercial imports and food aid deliveries have been meagre despite donor pledges, FAO said. 
  

Maize prices continue to soar in
Malawi as food insecurity worsens

However, South Africa has harvested a record maize crop of 12.4 million tonnes, estimated to result in a potential export surplus of about 4.7 million tonnes, more than enough to cover the sub-region's import requirements.

In east Africa, despite this year's better harvest the overall food situation remains precarious, particularly in countries ravaged by conflict or just emerging from war.

More than six million people in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea need emergency aid.

Civil unrest

Civil strife and insecurity are also hitting food availability in several countries in central Africa, with Burundi warning that a serious food crisis is looming in the northern and eastern provinces due to unfavourable prospects for the 2006 first harvest.

In the Sahel, the harvest outlook is good thanks to favourable weather throughout the growing season, but millions of people are still grappling with the devastating impact of the 2004/05 food crisis.

FAO said that in Niger, parts of Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania the crisis, caused by drought and a locust invasion, had resulted in the depletion of household assets, including loss of animals, and high levels of indebtedness.