AGRICULTURE is a major source of livelihood for the majority of Zambiaâ€™s population, with about 70 percent of the countryâ€™s population primarily depending on the sector for livelihood. With other economic sectors like mining currently facing challenges, there is need for increased investment in agriculture.
In recent years, the government, cooperating partners and other stakeholders have come up with a number of interventions to prop up the sector. These include the Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP), Irrigation Development and Support Project (IDSP), the Lima Credit Scheme, among others.
While a lot of resources have been invested in these schemes, the sector is yet to realise its potential. With the commemoration of Farmers Day last Monday, it is important for us to look at some of the factors that have hindered the growth of this sector. Identifying the problems will enable different stakeholders to work together towards addressing them.
Based on Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf)â€™s work with marginalised communities and agricultural stakeholders in the rural areas, the underperformance of the small scale farmer sub-sector can be attributed to a number of factors, including the following:
1. Lack of accountability in the management of public resources: Every year, millions of Kwacha in the national budget are allocated to the agricultural sector. However, some of these funds are misappropriated resulting in farmers not benefiting. For example, the Auditor Generalâ€™s Report for 2013 shows that some funds meant for agricultural development â€œwere applied on activities not related to the intended purposesâ€. The report identifies various gaps, which mostly have to do with lack of accountability in the management of resources.
2. Weak agricultural extension services: While the national policy in agriculture recognises provision of extension services to the farming community as a vital prerequisite for â€œpromoting development of an efficient, competitive and sustainable agricultural sector, which assures food security and increased incomeâ€, the state of extension services in some parts of the country leaves a lot to be desired. This results in farmers engaging in unsustainable and environmentally unsound practices, which in turn lead to land degradation and low production. Extension is a powerful platform through which farmers can access relevant and timely information and expertise for a particular season.
3. Limited access to information: PSAfâ€™s work with community based stakeholders shows that limited access to information about markets, weather forecasts, financial support, inputs, among others, is also a setback to the growth of the agricultural sector. National budgetary allocations to agricultural information services have constantly remained low. Although there has been a significant increase in the use of new information and communication technologies (ICTs), these have not been harnessed to their full potential in Zambia. The use of ICT platforms and tools can create opportunities for the poor and marginalised communities to engage with each other as well as with experts and policy makers to address some of these challenges thereby enhancing a sustainable agriculture industry towards sustainable poverty eradication.
4. Limited crop diversification among smallholder farmers: Most small-scale farmers have a deep-rooted attachment to maize, which has to some extent limited their capacity to diversify to other crops or products. This attachment to maize can largely be attributed to challenges in accessing seed for other crops and poor market linkages for certain crops. Enhanced farmer education, training and incentivising could be some of the answers to the diversification problem. As a result, when maize fails, agriculture also fails. This is not supposed to be the case. With enough support from the government and other stakeholders, farmers can sustainably explore other alternatives, such as livestock ranching, fish farming or aquaculture, and the production of other crops.
5. Limited access to markets: Farmers face challenges when it comes to accessing markets for their products. This leaves them at the whims of unscrupulous dealers who on many occasions take advantage of the poor farmers. There have been reports of some produce going to waste because farmers cannot access markets on time.
Let Farmersâ€™ Day be a time to look at ways of collectively addressing these challenges and enable Zambiaâ€™s farmers to take up their position as drivers of the countryâ€™s development. There is no doubt that with enough support, farmers can drive Zambiaâ€™s development and change the countryâ€™s economic fortunes for the better. Improved agriculture will improve food security, provide raw materials for the manufacturing sector, create employment and contribute to the growth of the countryâ€™s gross domestic product.
The author is PSAf regional manager for Communication and Knowledge Management.