There was no risk yet to South Africa’s rice and wheat imports despite some countries reducing exports amid the uncertain global economy and in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Agricultural Business Chamber economist Wandile Sihlobo.

Sihlobo said global rice production this year was predicted to be much the same as last year, at about 500 million tons.
South Africa imports about 1 million tons of rice a year, 70 percent of which comes from Thailand, 20 percent from India, and the rest from other Asian countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam. 

Vietnam had restricted its rice exports, but this was unlikely meaningfully to affect the supply to South Africa, said Sihlobo.

The International Grain Council (IGC) website said in the past month there had been a sharp upturn in demand for rice and wheat-based product foods, but weakening economies would likely dampen this demand in the longer term.

The IGC’s March global rice price index was up 4.1 percent month-on-month due to a surge in demand brought on by pandemic fears, and year-on-year the difference was 11.2 percent. Similarly, the wheat index was up 2.1 percent month-on-month, while the other grain commodity indexes were much lower than that, for the month.


However, Sihlobo said global rice and wheat prices were expected to revert to normal trends fairly soon.

Tiger Brands, South Africa’s biggest food product group – which owns the Tastic Rice and Fattis & Monis pasta brands – said in a call to investors last week it did not foresee shortages of rice and pasta products in South Africa in April or May.

This was notwithstanding that the group was struggling to get product out fast enough to stores, following a massive spike in demand before the lockdown.

Tiger chief executive Noel Doyle said beyond May the global food export picture was less certain, as Russia had reduced its wheat exports and Vietnam had cut its rice exports. 

Tiger’s own procurement operations were in good shape, he said.

He added that between March 15 and April 6, the group experienced a 60 percent surge in pasta compared with the same period a year ago, as consumers prepared for the lockdown, Jungle Oats sales had surged 70 percent, while wheat product sales were up 18 percent.

Tiger Brands imports rice from Thailand, and the Department of Health had put in place additional safety measures to handle cargo, which added to time delays for increased imports. Imports could be increased quickly, he said.

The weakening rand was raising the prices of imported rice and wheat. The rand had weakened nearly 40 percent in the past year and recently devalued to more than R19 per dollar for the first time, after ratings agencies downgraded the country further into junk status. 

Sihlobo said South Africa’s food price inflation remained low at about 4 percent, only slightly up from last year, and which was well down on the double-digit percentages in the national drought in 2016.