(Adds detail on the cancellation of duties)
By Ahmed Eljechtimi
CASABLANCA, Morocco, Oct 9 (Reuters) - French wheat exporters expect Morocco to import 3 million tonnes of soft wheat in the 2018/19 season in the wake of a suspension of customs duties, the French grains export promotion agency said on Tuesday.
About 45 percent of Morocco’s soft wheat imports are expected to be of French origin, the French agency said in a presentation to reporters in Casablanca.
France has the quantity and quality to supply the Moroccan market with up to 50 percent of its wheat imports, President of the French agency, Philippe Heusele told Reuters.
Yann Lebeau, head of Maghreb and Africa at the agency, expressed concern about “the aggressive prices set by Russia and Ukraine” at time when demand was higher than offers.
“Pricing pressure is higher this year,” he said, therefore importers were purchasing as early as possible.
“We will start exports to Morocco on November 1 when Morocco will suspend customs duty on soft wheat,” he said.
Last week, Morocco said duties on soft wheat will be cancelled from Nov. 1 to ensure regular supply and avoid a surge in prices in the domestic market.
The cancellation of duties follows a slow pace in the collection of national production.
To protect the local harvest, Morocco imposed a 135 percent customs duty on imports which last until Oct. 31.
The move followed an exceptional cereals output this year of 10.3 million tonnes, including of 4.91 million tonnes of soft wheat, 2.42 million tonnes of hard wheat and 2.92 of barley.
Chakib Alj, head of the Moroccan millers federation, said priority on imports would be given to Russian and Ukrainian wheat which have “the best quality-price offer”.
“French wheat will only start entering the Moroccan market in February or March depending on whether there is still Russian or Ukrainian wheat available,” he said.
Morocco’s hard wheat imports are expected at about 0.7 million tonnes, it said.
France supplied 30 percent of Morocco’s soft wheat needs last year, followed by 13 percent of U.S. wheat, which both benefit from a preferential tariff agreement, he said.
After the cancellation of customs duty on soft wheat this year “everyone is on a level playing field,” he said, adding that Morocco, on a 10-year average, imports 65 percent of its soft wheat needs.
Morocco’s wheat reserves cover 4.3 months of the needs of local mills, the ministry said.
Wheat supply is key to Morocco’s stability as bread and semolina are staples for the population of 35 million. (Reporting by Ahmed ElJechtimi; Writing by Ulf Laessing and Ahmed ElJechtimi Editing by Louise Heavens, Jason Neely and David Evans)