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POLICY ANALYSIS: Over dependence on maize growing costly

By James Muyanwa –
THE first decade of the MMD rule will remain in Zambia’s history as wasted years for most of the rural dwellers who became impoverished as
a result of lack of government support towards the agriculture sector.

At the risk of sounding political, I would say the government’s neglect of the agriculture sector then condemned the rural inhabitants – most of whom are small-scale farmers – to perpetual beggars for food.

This gave yield to phrases like “relief food” and “food for work,” as villagers lined up for government rations of maize, beans
and such other cereals.

Villages became sorry sights and life in the countryside was a nightmare. When visiting your home village you had better go with a
bag of mealie meal.

That, however, changed with the advent of the second 10-year phase of the MMD, when we saw the retention of the government support towards
the agro sector.

Sadly, amid government support, the agriculture sector has been driven by maize cultivation which has been over-supported.
This has been done without considering comparative advantages of the areas.

Through what started as Fertiliser Support Programme (FSP) the government has indiscriminately been giving out inputs to small-scale
farmers.

On a positive note, this has led to the country recording bumper harvests. Amid the high levels of production, the productivity has
remained low. The maize has been produced at a great cost, resulting in high cost of maize and ultimately mealie meal and other maize
products.

To be more blunt, our maize purchased by the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) cannot be profitably exported to any other country.

Last year,  I pushed in a Press query to the agency after it exported some maize from the 2010/11 bumper harvest at $200 per tonne.
This is the same maize FRA had bought at K65,000 per 50 kilogramme bag which translates into $260/tonne.
Therefore, the agency was incurring a loss of $60 per tonne – minus storage and transport costs.

In response to my query, FRA spokesperson Mwamba Siame had said: “Whilst the cost of production is an important factor in arriving at
the breakeven point, productivity is also equally important. The lower the yield, the higher the breakeven point is.

“Currently small-scale farmers produce not more than 2.5 tonnes per hectare compared to four to five tonnes per hectare recorded in the region on average.”

Mrs Siame, who is still serving as the agency’s spokesperson, said the potential for maize is as high as eight-10 tonnes per hectare with
good management.

She said given the price of US$260 per tonne offered by FRA as the local market price versus regional price of $200 per tonne, the agency
was paying higher than what the market was offering “for a good reason.”

The good reason was that this was the deliberate plan by government to encourage production to achieve food security.

Mrs Siame did not end there but offered the panacea which is: “Now that the food security has been attained, there is need to focus on
improving productivity so that the breakeven price is not higher than the market price.”

This is the challenge of the Patriotic Front (PF) Government and the rider to that is partly in what agro expert Edify Hamukale suggested
recently.

Mr Hamukale said there is need to revisit the crop zoning system to boost crop diversification and address the challenges being faced.

He said the Government should reintroduce crop zoning in all provinces, according to the traditional crops grown in given areas.

If a region has no comparative advantage in, for instance, maize cultivation then it should not receive any subsidised fertiliser for
maize.

Conversely, if a region has a comparative advantage in cotton or rice, then the government should find ways of supporting farmers in
such regions to maximise on cotton or rice growing.

This will also help depoliticise the cultivation of maize. A peek into the 2011-2016 PF Manifesto is, however, reassuring because that is
exactly what the now ruling party pledged to do.

The document’s chapter on agriculture development is characterised with the need for diversification according to geographical advantage
of the areas.

The manifesto states that the possibility for diversity that nature has bestowed upon Zambia has been suppressed by heavily lopsided
economic policies of past governments.

In particular the provision of fertiliser and seed input subsidies and delivery, extension services and a guaranteed market for just a single
crop – maize.

“As a result maize is produced even in low-yield and risky areas where it should not be grown at all.

“But small farmers lack access to the finance and knowledge needed to ‘go it alone’ in other crops and have become dependent on subsidised maize production.”

The party promised – and I am sure – still promises to change that by supporting the regions according to their comparative advantages. / times of zambia

 

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Comment:

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