The 2016 budget for agriculture has been reduced by 21.3% compared to that of 2015 in terms of the total national budget allocation. The implications of this are as follows: (i) there will be less production (ii) there will be few extension visits (iii) low investment in irrigation to promote off season agriculture (iv) increase in animal disease, with the poor losing assets they could trade to meet their food deficit and (v) hunger and starvation in 2016, which will exacerbate malnutrition and stunting. The agriculture budget is 4.1 billion kwacha; of that amount over 55% will be spent on the Fertiliser Input Support Programme (FISP) and Food Reserve Agency (FRA). In the case of the FRA we are still not sure why FRA is operating the way it is. It should by now be a profit making venture. Their attempt to offload maize at 85 kwacha, which they obtained at 75 kwacha a 50kg bag is such an attempt at commercialization and independence. This maize will be exhausted before the next season’s crop is ready because most of the maize we thought we had is only available on paper.
The PF have only been giving lip service to agriculture and this is the reason we are beginning to see a reduction in production. Before long this country will be facing starvation and importing maize again as our harvests have been going down every year since 2011. Yet our partial drought of last season cannot compare with the droughts of previous seasons, more especially 2001/2002 when there was no rainfall.
What do we need to do? First and foremost we should change the Ministry of Maize to the Ministry of Agriculture. After that we should embark, in earnest, on a serious and robust diversification programme away from maize. The narrow definition of food security being perpetrated by the PF of only looking at maize is a fallacy. How come people that have full time jobs and monthly earnings are not said to be food insecure? PF and previous Governments have made us believe that food security means growing maize, which is wrong. Food security means one has the means to access food, whether grown by that person or grown by someone else. If Government was wise they would have invested in other crops, such as soybeans. On the open market this season, soybeans are trading at 3.85 kwacha per kilogram, which works out at 192 kwacha per 50kg bag. Compare that with 75 kwacha for maize and yet of the two crops it’s even cheaper to grow soybeans, because they are a legume that does not need the same amount of urea as maize. I can further state that with simple value addition, such as grinding soybeans into full fat using a simple hammer mill, they would fetch up to 300 kwacha for a 50kg bag. This is what we mean by agriculture reform. There is no single farmer who plants soybeans who gets support such as FISP from Government, yet they are still able to survive from one farming season to another. With these profits Government will really be restricted to the strategic grain reserves and leave the market to determine prices. To further this point, we would like to say Government must stay out of the market completely. Millers run plants that are not subsidized by the Government, yet the Government is giving subsidized maize to so called solar hammer mills and offloading subsidized mealie-meal on the market. This is amid threats from the same Government that they will repossess any milling company that will not reduce mealie meal prices. From a Government that has repossessed private companies before, without due process of the law, one has to take such a threat seriously. Millers have been under pressure from this Government that wants millers to reduce prices to the point where their businesses will become unviable. All this is being done for political reasons, even if the threats do not make business sense.
Secondly, the PF must be serious with investment in extension services to buttress the point above. Does the PF even know that a properly managed maize crop can produce close to 10 tons per hectare for the same level of inputs? When we visited Mkushi, a small-scale farmer told us that he had planted seed that gave him 5 tons per hectare of maize with the same amount of inputs. That tonnage is equal to 100 bags of maize, subtract about 4,500 kwacha in production costs in the 2014/15 farming season, that farmer has a profit of 3,000 kwacha. Who needs FISP in that situation? If this farmer had extension services, probably the tonnage would have doubled or at least been higher than 5 tons. This is why for us it is important to ensure that extension services are readily available to support productivity as opposed to production. We believe with the chaotic manner that FISP is currently handled a farmer that has money to afford fertilizer will not wait for FISP and they will start graduating on their own.
The third issue that the PF must address immediately is that of value addition. We have been talking about value addition for years and we will be surprised if PF actually starts to implement it. Lip service is all we have been subjected to so far. Here is how, using cottage industries, we should begin turning raw sunflower into sunflower oil and sunflower cake. We should start turning raw maize into semi processed maize and maize bran which can be used locally to feed livestock. This way, farmers will make more money and invest in irrigation systems so that if adverse weather is anticipated, as the case is now, they can water their crop to maturity.
Fourthly, the PF must trim its expenditure next year. Zambia’s import cover has been reducing all this time because we have an exchange rate that is simply untenable. With such low import cover the country risks failing to import maize which will be expensive because very few countries in Southern Africa, with the possible exception of South Africa will have enough grain. If only 25,000 hectares is under irrigation, when we say only 2.3 tons of maize can be produced per hectare that translates to 57,500 tons. If we had a proper diversification programme we would use this irrigated land for horticulture, which would see more money go to the farmers for them to afford their staple food. But how do we help a farmer in Chieftainess Litunga Liamboela’s area to get to Lusaka under the current Government, which has no idea about market linkages; connecting farmers to markets.
We are faced with an El Nino. I can confirm that my folks in the village have no weather information on what they need to do to mitigate the situation that is unfolding. That is as a result of failure by Government to provide extension services and proper meteorological information which can aid decision making. We warned against load shedding; at the time we were told that we were alarming the nation. We are now facing a serious hunger situation and the PF is not assuring the nation on the various ways and means to mitigate this situation. Watch what happens next year.