NKOMBO KACHEMBA, Kitwe
THE agriculture sector is the fourth largest contributor to Zambia’s gross domestic product (GDP) and provides alternative source of livelihood to people in the informal sector.
It is estimated that about three million people in Zambia are engaged in various farming activities, ranging from crop production to rearing of livestock.
However, the agriculture sector has numerous challenges, which include lack of market for farm produce, poor road networks leading to farm areas and scarcity of land.
Low productivity is also another major challenge facing the agriculture sector. Majority of the farmers only cultivate enough for home consumption and sell a little of their produce on the market, thus realising minimal profits.
In its efforts to improve productivity in the agriculture sector, Government in 2002 introduced the Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP).
This programme is aimed at helping farmers with subsidised farm inputs to enable them to cultivate enough produce for sale and realise profits from their venture.
However, implementing the programme has been a challenge as some stakeholders have continued to complain over its administration.
But Government has continued to modify the programme and recently, it introduced the electronic voucher system (e-voucher), which requires farmers to use electronic cards to access farm inputs direct from agro-dealers.
Previously, farmers had to stand in long queues at holding depots, where suppliers offloaded the inputs.
However, the e-voucher system has also been criticised by some stakeholders who feel Government took long to activate the cards in the previous farming season, resulting in some farmers getting their inputs late.
A card can only be activated if a farmer and Government deposit money into the bank.
Some farmers claim they have not yet received their farm inputs for the 2017-2018 farming season due to the non-activation of their cards.
Muchinga Province Cooperative Union board chairperson Josephat Sichilima, who is also a prominent farmer, says last year’s farming season had numerous challenges arising from teething problems of the e-voucher system.
Mr Sichilima said the other contributing factor was that in Muchinga, suppliers of farm inputs were inadequate and farmers had challenges using their cards.
He said some cards were not activated as a result of either Government or the farmers depositing money late.
Mr Sichilima said some agro-dealers hiked the price of inputs after realising that their commodities were on demand.
Government last year identified 2,000 agro-dealers to participate in the 2017-2018 farming season.
“The rains were good, we did not have serious armyworm attacks, but the problem was with the electronic voucher cards. They were not activated on time,” Mr Sichilima said.
He said in future, Government must deposit the money in the banks on time to enable farmers to get the inputs on time.
However, Mr Sichilima advised farmers not to only depend on Government for farm inputs but plan for the farming season well in advance.
Mr Sichilima said farmers should also find markets for their produce rather than only depending on the Food Reserve Agency (FRA).
And the Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU) says there is need for both Government and farmers to adequately prepare for the farming season.
ZNFU media and public relations manager Kelvin Kaleyi said the 2017-2018 farming season had challenges which Government should avoid in future by, for instance, starting to plan for next farming season now.
Mr Kaleyi said of the 700,000 farmers captured on the e-voucher system during the 2017-2018 farming season, only 575,716 had their cards activated and were able to access the farm inputs on time.
He called on Government to start planning for the 2018-2019 farming season early so that farmers could access farm inputs by June.
Mr Kaleyi said in the era of information and technology, it should not be difficult for Government to implement the e-voucher system.
He also said Government should encourage farmers to start depositing money in their e-vouchers accounts before the farming seasons starts to avoid the problem of late activation of cards.
But Ministry of Agriculture Permanent Secretary Julius Shawa partly blamed the late activation of the cards on the farmers, whom he said are usually reluctant to deposit the money on time.
Mr Shawa said last year, Government had asked the farmers to start depositing the money into their accounts as early as October but they only started doing so in January this year.
“When we tell our farmers to start depositing money this time, less than 190 will do so. They are always reluctant to deposit money on time,” he said.
Mr Shawa said it is not true that FRA contributed to farmers depositing money late in the bank because only 60,000 of them supplied maize to the agency out of the estimated 900,000 beneficiaries captured on the system.
He said Government always adequately prepares for the farming season but the problem was with the other stakeholders that participate in the programme.
Mr Shawa also acknowledged that some financial institutions were taking long to load the funds on the cards, despite Government releasing the money on time.
He, however, said Government will review the 2017-2018 farming season to adequately understand where the challenges faced by the farmers culminated from.
Government will also review the performance of the six banks and two other financial institutions that participated in the 2017-2018 farming season because some of them were a disappointment.
Mr Shawa said Government wants to address teething problems of the e-voucher system and has therefore engaged the Ministry of Finance to expedite the release of the funds for the implementation of the 2018-2019 farming season.
The permanent secretary said agro-dealers, financial institutions and the farmers should equally start preparing for this year’s farming season.
He said Government wants to ensure that the e-voucher system is effectively implemented for FISP to achieve its intended purpose.
Mr Shawa said currently, Government is spending more than K1 billion to support the programme.
NKOMBO KACHEMBA, Kitwe