Road and rail transport wagons wait to load up with imported corn maize from a cargo vessel at the city port in Cape Town, South Africa, on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. Drought is to push up farming costs, food prices, cause rising debt levels for farmers and job losses for farm workers, South Africa's President Jacob Zuma said in a speech to parliament in Cape Town. Photographer: Halden Krog/Bloomberg

Johannesburg - The recent rainfall experienced in some parts of the country are too little and too late to significantly help the drought-hit agricultural sector and ease food prices, according to economists.

“The rains are very late and I don’t think they will make much difference to the current crops. It is already too late for maize and the summer crops,” Wandile Sihlobo, an economist at Grain SA, said on Friday.

Read: Farmers still confident despite challenges

Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Senzeni Zokwana, told Parliament last week that South Africa would need to significantly increase maize imports in the next season with 2.4 million tons of yellow maize and 1.9 million tons of white maize in order to meet local demand. The worst drought in more than a century has devastated summer crops and livestock.

South Africa has already lowered its estimate for maize production this season for a third time to the lowest since 2006, according to the government’s crop estimates committee. It estimates that local maize growers will probably produce 7 million tons this year, 0.9 percent less than last month’s forecast of 7.07 million tons and 30 percent less than the 9.96 million tons produced in 2015.

Grain SA said last month that the country might need to import 3.8 million tons of the grain this year to meet demand.

First National Bank’s senior agricultural economist, Paul Makube, said on Friday that the recent rains would only be good for winter crops.

He said the situation had pushed food inflation to double digits. “As food commodities are becoming scarce, we see the prices of food going up, because we have to import those to meet the demand.”

Makube said horticulture relied on water to survive and the wet winter conditions would go a long way to reverse the losses.

But he also warned: “It might take two to seven years to get the numbers back and produce at the same levels we did before the drought.”

Sihlobo said the recent rain would benefit a small section of the late sunflower seed plantings and winter crops of wheat and barley, because they were approaching their planting season.

He said the country had already experienced high food prices. “Yellow maize has gone up by 30 percent, milk by a slight 3 percent, eggs by 12 percent and sunflower oil has gone up by 33 percent compared with a year before.”

He noted that the price of beef had only gone up by 9 percent due to the large-scale slaughter of livestock.

A survey conducted by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in mid-April showed that producers intended to plant 481 850 hectares of wheat for the 2016 season, 300ha less than the 482 150ha planted in 2015.

The main producing areas are within the Western Cape with 320 000ha (66 percent), followed by the Free State with 80 000ha (17 percent) and the Northern Cape with 34 000ha (7 percent).

The area to be planted with maize in the non-commercial agricultural sector is estimated at 266 130ha, which represents a decrease of 32.7 percent compared with the 395 200ha of the previous season.

The expected maize crop for this sector is 435 740 tons, which is 35.3 percent less than the 673 800 tons of last season. It is important to note that about 60 percent of the maize produced in the non-commercial sector is planted in the Eastern Cape.

The expected area to be planted with malting barley is 92 000ha, which is 1.8 percent less than the 93 730ha of the previous year.

The expected area to be planted with canola is 71 050ha, which is 9 percent less than the 78 050ha planted in 2015.

Mandla Buthelezi, the provincial chairman of the National African Farmers’ Union, a body that represents emerging farmers in KwaZulu-Natal, said due to the lack of water some farmers in the north of the province had lost 80 percent, and some all, of their cattle livestock.

“The small rains we have just experienced will not help the livestock farmers at all, because it won’t replace the cattle they have lost,” he said.