Columnists Features

Quality products improve commodity prices

EVERY year in Zambia, farmers cry foul about the ‘perceived’ low commodity prices offered by several commodity traders including the Food Reserve Agency (FRA).
Commodity pricing is a critical issue in Zambia and has been for a very long time. What most of the producers and traders do not understand is that commodity pricing does not only depend on the production and availability of a particular commodity in Zambia but world over.
In the region, the major producers of agricultural commodities such as soyabeans, wheat and maize are countries such as South Africa and Zambia, while Congo DR and Zimbabwe have been the major markets for some time besides other export markets like China.
In the world, the larger corn producers are countries like USA and the markets are mainly China and Africa. Interestingly, the price of maize imported from USA landed in Lusaka will normally be cheaper than the commodity produced by a farmer in Shangombo, Mkushi or Chongwe. The biggest factor in this pricing is the cost of production and productivity. Subsidies also come into play because in the USA farmers get subsidised.
In the USA, the average productivity on the same piece of land is around 10 tonnes while in Zambia it stands at around a paltry two tonnes. What this means is that the quantity of maize produced in Zambia will be more costly than the same quantity of corn from USA landed at Lusaka regardless of the transportation costs. The question we might all want to ask is, why?
The answer to the above question is simple; the farmer in Texas produces maize more efficiently than the farmer at Mgubudu village in Chipata. There are several factors that affect this low efficiency in production. Some of the factors are seed, fertiliser, pesticides, knowledge and water.
Let us discuss pesticides. In agriculture there are four types of pesticides; namely herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and adjuvants. Let us highlight the importance of herbicides. Herbicides are pesticides which are applied in the field on several crops to inhibit the growth of weeds without having effects on the crop itself. The importance of allowing the crop to grow without weeds is that there is less competition for both nutrients and water including sunlight.
In Zambia, there are a lot of products that are being sold which control weeds. These herbicides are in three forms; the pre-emergence – which are herbicides that are sprayed to control the weeds before the maize and the weeds germinate; post-emergence – which are herbicides that control the weeds when both the crop and the weeds have germinated; and the last category is one which is non-selective that will combat or kill anything green.
I will share the importance of controlling the weeds before they germinate. Some weeds are just like viruses and bacteria are parasitic in nature; they will germinate and imbed their roots into the roots of a crop and start ‘stealing’ nutrients and water from the crop. Once this is allowed, the quality of the crop will be compromised and this will result in not only an unhealthy plant but low yields with poor quality grains.
It is important therefore to control the weeds before they germinate. On the market, we have several products which fall in this category. For a very long time, we have had products like Acetochlor which controls the grasses and it is combined with Atrazine for broadleaf weeds. Producers should note that applying products like Acetochlor over the top of maize will affect or kill the crop as well.
Of late, some more friendly products which are a combination of several molecules have been developed and one product that I have seen to work well for those growing maize is one that has a combination of three products: Mesotrione, S-metachlor and Terbuthylazine which some companies are selling as Lumax.
It is important to appreciate the fact that roots are the foundation of having healthy plants. Farmers should appreciate that by waiting to only spray herbicides after they wait for the weeds to germinate, the damage will have already been done.
To get better prices as producers, we need to look at how we are efficiently producing the crops. In my view, the prices that FRA has been offering in most instances have been higher than the world market prices but the reason our farmers have been thinking the prices being offered are lower has been the low productivity.
If only we can increase our productivity, pricing especially for maize will not be much of an issue. As much as we need to be thinking of value addition, the first step is to produce a quality crop and only then  can we think of pricing it at a premium. The first step in producing a quality crop is to ensure that there is no competition from weeds. In the next article, we will discuss some of the products that farmers can use that can help them mitigate the adverse effects of stress such as droughts.
The author is an agribusiness expert currently working for a multinational agribusiness company in Lusaka as head of channel distribution.

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