BELINDA CHABALA, Choma
AS THE world advances technologically, the agriculture sector in Zambia has not been left out as evidenced by the introduction of the electronic voucher (e-voucher) system.
The Ministry of Agriculture introduced the e-voucher system to enable small-scale farmers access subsidised inputs under the Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP) in a more transparent and efficient manner.
The initiative, which was launched by President Lungu in Kalomo on October 12, 2015, is being piloted in 13 districts across the country.
Deputy Minister of Agriculture Maxas Ngâ€™onga recently visited Kalomo, Choma, Pemba, Monze and Mazabuka districts in Southern Province to monitor the performance of the e-voucher system. He also met with agro-dealers and farmers who have benefited from the programme.
According to the government, the introduction of the e-voucher system was meant to save resources through elimination of procurement, transportation and other costs associated with FISP.
The system obliges agro-dealers to have an electronic swiping machine and enables small scale farmers to access farm inputs, equipment, livestock feed and vaccines, to mention a few.
Southern Province is well known for keeping livestock, especially cattle, as well as milk and crop production. In this region, the e-voucher system is being implemented in Kalomo, Choma, Pemba, Monze, Mazabuka and Chikankata districts.
According to the provincial agricultural coordinatorâ€™s report, a total of 112,573 farmers were targeted to benefit from the e-voucher system in all the six districts. So far, over 90,000 farmers have benefited from the system.
The report further indicates that the objectives of the e-voucher system were to improve timeliness in inputs distribution, improve the quality of inputs under FISP, build private sector capacity in inputs marketing and distribution, provide means to easily introduce farm risk mitigation measures and ultimately improve household and national food security as well as farm incomes.
In line with promoting crop diversification, some farmers were able to collect different kinds of inputs such as maize seeds, bean seeds, soya beans, vegetable, weed killers, veterinary drugs, ploughs and calves, among others.
Choma district agricultural coordinator Robert Tembo said over 23,000 farmers in the area have benefited from the e-voucher system.
Eliezer Agro Dealers manager Essabel Mweendo commended government for introducing the e-voucher system, which has resulted in improved sales.
â€œWe now have three warehouses to ensure that we have enough stocks of farm inputs and livestock feed. Demand for farm inputs is too high and we are here to provide quality services to the farmers,â€ Ms Mweendo said.
Patrick Chulu, another farmer of Popota area in Choma, said the system has helped him diversify crop production as he is now able to grow crops such as cowpeas and beans which he later sells.
And Kalomo district agricultural coordinator Goliath Chooye said over 26,000 farmers in the district have benefited from the e-voucher initiative.
Kalomoâ€™s O and R agro-dealer Richwell Sikatumba said the e-voucher system has created markets and employment for the local people.
Pemba district agricultural coordinator Henry Chipasha said about 8,000 farmers have benefited from the e-voucher system.
Alice Mwanachongwe of Pemba said gone are the days when a farmer would sleep outside a depot waiting for fertiliser. This time, the power is in a farmer with his or her card.
Monze district agricultural coordinator Justin Ngosa said about 24,000 farmers have benefited from the system since it was introduced in the area.
A farmer in the district, Njekwa Mukumbuta, said the system did not seem to work well at first but it has now proved efficient and effective to the farming community.
And Zambia National Farmers Union Southern B regional manager Lomandinga Kasauka said as a cooperating partner, the union ensured that the e-voucher cards were given to targeted beneficiaries through the right procedure.
Southern Province acting agricultural coordinator Evans Nkhoma commended government for introducing the e-voucher system as it has proved to be better than the way FISP was previously administered.
Mr Nkhoma said the Ministry of Agriculture in the province will start training the officers and re-sensitising farmers on the benefits of the e-voucher system.
â€œWe need to sensitise the farmers more as there are some who donâ€™t know that with the e-voucher system, they are allowed to pick assorted farm inputs, from crop inputs to livestock inputs, depending on what they need,â€ he said.
However, the system has its own challenges. These include delayed distribution and activation of beneficiariesâ€™ cards, delayed depositing of funds by farmers and non-collection of cards by some farmers.
FISP evaluation and monitoring officer Grey Mwale said his office was in touch with the respective banks concerning the issue of late card activations and the slow pace at which money was being deposited.
It is therefore recommended that the implementation of the e-voucher system should be starting as early as January to allow for enough time for printing and activation of cards.
Government should also consider engaging more banks on quick depositing of funds into the farmersâ€™ accounts.
Meanwhile, Mr Ngâ€™onga was happy with the information he got from the provincial and district agricultural coordinators, district commissioners, the farmers themselves and agro-dealers after the deputy minister visited Kalomo, Choma, Pemba, Monze and Mazabuka districts.
Mr Ngâ€™onga said new systems come with challenges, but urged officers in the respective districts to ensure that such challenges are addressed in the next farming season.
â€œI have heard for myself and Iâ€™m very happy as I have a feel of the e-voucher system on the ground. This system is a government policy and everyone should be ready to move forward with it. As of the challenges, letâ€™s ensure that we work on them,â€ Mr Ngâ€™onga said.
He urged the farmers to consider venturing in crop diversification and livestock farming.
Mr Ngâ€™onga also urged agro- dealers in the province to expand their businesses to remote areas to ease the burden that farmers suffer when transporting farm inputs to their rural farms.
BELINDA CHABALA, Choma