By DOREEN NAWA
WITH the countryâ€™s economy growing steadily, and urban cities struggling to cope with the influx of urban drifters looking for work, the small-scale farmer is often shrouded in the dust.
Zambia has the ideal makings of a robust farming community, but faces many challenges, even when blessed with arable land, water, and abundant human resources.
Studies show that small-scale farmers have been instrumental in food production countrywide and if supported adequately, could contribute significantly to the national food basket.
The question is – how can Zambian small-scale farmers modernise in keeping up with the trends of the 21 century and thereby help reduce poverty?
Cross Border Traders Association President Felix Daka says the first step in changing the face of small-scale farming in Zambia is through financing.
â€œHybrid seeds, fertilisers, water-pumps, and simple improvements in farming techniques often cost money, which most small-scale farmers simply donâ€™t have.Â Modern commercial farmers in the rest of the world donâ€™t farm with their own money.Â Itâ€™s nearly always borrowed from banks or local mutual societies,â€ Mr Daka said.
Financial institutions need to appreciate that small-scale farmers are a viable clientele whom they could do business with.
Technology is another challenge that hinders progression of small-scale farmers.Â Technology has had a profound impact on the lives of the Zambian society, with the widespread use of mobile phones.
With the high number of unbanked farmers who bury money in their homesteads and lack of information on market trends, the introduction of an information system for farmers could not have come at the right time.
Given the existing need, the Zambia National Farmersâ€™ Union (ZNFU) has developed an initiative called ZNFU4455 to provide necessary information to farmers.
ZNFU4455 is a short message service (SMS) trading system designed to provide information to small-scale farmers on current crop prices and market places using mobile phones.
â€œIf illegal miners on the Copperbelt can have access to the latest spot prices on the London Metal Exchange, it is also possible to provide similar information to small-scale farmers. They [farmers] need to know the latest prices,â€ Mr Daka said.
And Government is reviewing the national agricultural policy, bearing in mind concerns that have been raised by small-scale farmers.
Minister of Agriculture and Livestock Wylbur Simuusa said, â€œThe review of the agricultural policy 2004-2015 is being done in order to address the needs of the small-scale farmers, taking into account the emerging trends in the sector such as environment and climate change, decentralisation, globalisation and changes in the legal environment.â€
â€œThere are several challenges that have constrained the performance of the agriculture sector and its contribution to poverty reduction. But I wish to say that Government and several other cooperating partners have made efforts aimed at transforming the sector,â€ Mr Simuusa said.
Like many other developing countries, Zambiaâ€™s agriculture sector is constrained by poor infrastructure, inadequate storage facilities especially in rural areas where agriculture is the mainstay of the economy.
Other challenges include low levels of investment, lack of access to affordable credit and limited access to modern technology.
The pervasive hand-held-hoe, the small-scale farmerâ€™s workhorse across the country, continues to be important for farming.
Its simplicity, efficiency and costs are still too competitive to be replaced. But those are the same features of many innovative tools being developed in Brazil, India, and elsewhere in Africa.
Simple compact tractors that can be economically used on small lands, better grain storage bins, and hand-cranked maize shucking equipment, are all examples of equipment that todayâ€™s smallholder farmers can use to join the modern world.
Senior advisor at International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Brian Baldwin said lack of capital investment had continued affecting the growth of the small-scale farmers in the country.
â€œThe objective of the workshop is to have an opportunity to discuss the main findings and recommendations from Zambia country programme evaluation and reflect on their implications,â€ Mr Baldwin said.
Independence office of evaluation officer-in-charge of IFAD, Kees Tuinenburg said even though IFAD was a relatively small financial partner in Zambia ,the country programme had made an important contribution to the development of agriculture and rural development.
Mr Tuinenburg said cooperation between IFAD and government plays a central role for a more effective and efficient use of the government systems.
In an era where commercial farmers are increasingly relying on satellites and drones to improve yields and cut costs, small incremental improvements are the key for Zambiaâ€™s small-scale farmers.
Meeting Zambian small-scale farmers where they are and moving them into the 21st century has to be the future for Zambian agriculture.
Evidenced from Catherine Mudenda, a dairy farmer in Kalomo, dairy farmers in Kalomo and most of the parts in Southern province have built cooperatives.
â€œParmalat buys milk from us and I can safely say that we have built the whole dairy industry with milk provided by smallholders for Parmalat which in turn supplies the whole country,â€ Mrs Mudenda said.
The Parmalat Group is a global player in the production and distribution of milk and other dairy products.
Of course, the challenge is much bigger than this, and must include government commitment to improve infrastructure and education. Simple steps can turn Zambiaâ€™s small-scale farmers into modern farmers.
Farmers therefore need to be equipped with modern farming methods as well as being integrated into the mainstream economy.
Agriculture in Zambia is one of the key priority sectors that contribute to economic growth and poverty reduction.
And small-scale farmers play a vital role in promoting food security yet they have to cope with numerous challenges ranging from farming inputs to market access.
Given the right conditions and targeted support, smallholder farmers can engineer a sustainable agricultural revolution.
By DOREEN NAWA