Corn inflation is so bad in the Democratic Republic of Congo that some people are smuggling it through Zambia in coffins

April 21, 2023, 8:47 PM UTC
Zambia coffin
Two men transport a coffin to the cemetery—this isn't one with smuggled corn in it.
Louise Gubb—CORBIS SABA/Corbis/Getty Images

Surging corn prices in the Democratic Republic of Congo have created a lucrative trade for people to smuggle the staple food out of neighboring Zambia, and a clampdown is causing creative concealment strategies — with some even using coffins.

Smugglers have been hiding corn meal among crushed stones, sand and caskets, according to a report by Zambia’s state broadcaster. They’ve even hidden corn in bags of sugar. While the lean season that usually runs into May often comes with high demand from neighboring nations, this year it’s been particularly severe.

Zambia is one of southern Africa’s biggest food producers and managed a corn surplus last year despite the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine on the supply of fertilizers that hobbled others in the region.

Prices for the crop that’s mixed with water to make a porridge called nshima has surged in the region — in Malawi, it was more than double in February compared with a year earlier, according to data from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, known as FEWS Net. The cost of a 25-kilogram bag most commonly bought by families jumped as much as 80% in recent days to 90,000 francs ($44) in Lubumbashi in Congo, United Nations-backed Radio Okapi reported this week. 

That’s created a lucrative arbitrage opportunity for illicit traders in Zambia, where the same bag costs about $10. It’s also created a problem for Zambia’s government, which has deployed security personnel to curb the smuggling that’s created localized shortages. The air force was considering aerial patrols. 

Shoprite Zambia, the nation’s biggest supermarket chain, is among retailers that have limited the amount of corn meal customers can buy.

Two Bags

“In the current shortage crisis, we have been entrusted with subsidized Food Reserve Agency maize meal by government so that our customers can benefit from the price,” Charles Bota, the general manager at the local unit of Shoprite Holdings Ltd., said in an emailed response to questions on Thursday. “We therefore cannot allow that a person buys more than one or two bags for this reason in the time of this temporary shortage.” 

While Zambia produced surpluses for the past three seasons, the nation only has enough corn remaining to meet its own demand until the next harvest becomes available in the coming weeks, Agriculture Minister Reuben Phiri said in comments broadcast on ZNBC. The government has stopped issuing export licenses. 

–With assistance from Michael J. Kavanagh.

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