ESTHER MSETEKA, Lusaka
DESPITE agriculture being a multi-billion dollar industry, the sector is still a sleeping giant waiting for the chance to register real prosperity.
The sector has the potential to become Zambia’s economic backbone. However, this can only be achieved if more people embrace farming as a lucrative business venture and as a life style.
To register real growth, there is need for the country to wake up from its slumber, and the first step should be promoting best agriculture practices that have the potential to boost farmers’ yields.
Of course, Government is working hard to ensure that better strategies such as the Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP) are adopted and strengthened in the agricultural space.
Under FISP, farmers can access inputs of their choice, thereby creating opportunities for diversification in the sector.
The aim of FISP is to boost the resource envelop of poor small-scale farmers through the provision of subsidised inputs and also enhancing the participation and competitiveness of the private sector in the supply and distribution value chain.
And in its continuous fight against hunger and poverty in the 2015/2016 farming season, Government started piloting FISP on 241,000 farmers in 13 districts across the country and scaled up to over 600,000 farmers in 39 districts in the 2016/2017 farming season.
However, it is important to note that FISP has been under-implemented since the 2002/2003 season.
The programme was originally designed to address the then declining crop production, especially maize, following successive droughts and floods.
To maintain the diversification drive, Government decided to fully migrate to the e-voucher system with the focus of covering one million beneficiaries in the 2017/18 farming season.
And to ensure the programme is effectively implemented, in the 2018 budget, Government allocated K1.8 billion to FISP under the electronic (e) voucher system while K1.1 billion was allocated towards the maintenance of the country’s strategic food reserves of 500,000 metric tonnes.
And presenting the 2019 national budget under the theme ‘Delivering fiscal consolidation for sustainable and inclusive growth’, Minister of Finance Margaret Mwanakatwe announced that 716,000 farmers accessed inputs under the e-voucher system in the last farming season.
In the 2019 national budget, Government has proposed to spend K86.8 billion or 28.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), which is the monetary value of all finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific period.
Of this amount, domestic revenues will account for 64.6 percent, while 2.2 percent is expected to come from cooperating partners.
The balance of 33.2 percent will be financed from domestic and foreign sources.
In as much as Government wants to see Zambia develop, it is also wary in the way it allocates and monitors resources.
To this effect, it has reduced the allocation for FISP to K1.4 billion in the 2019 national budget from K1.8 billion spent this year.
Mrs Mwanakatwe also announced that financing to the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) for the maintenance of the national food reserves has been reduced to K672 million in the 2019 budget from the K1.1 billion it was allocated this year.
“Government intends to spend a total of K5.4 billion in the agriculture sector, including fisheries and livestock, in the 2019 budget,” Mrs Mwanakatwe proposed.
She explained that about 5,800 agro-dealers throughout the country are involved in the supply of agro-inputs.
Mrs Mwanakatwe, however, notes that a number of challenges were observed with the e-voucher system during the 2017/2018 farming season, among them limitations of telecommunication connectivity, poor financial services provision and limited access to information and communication technology.
“As these challenges are being addressed, in the 2018/2019 farming season, Government will buy and distribute inputs to the affected parts of the country.
“The affected districts will be re-introduced on the e-voucher system in 2019, once the challenges have been resolved,” she said.
And giving an update on the importance of agriculture to economic growth, Minister of Agriculture Michael Katambo said in the 2018/2019 farming season, Government has targeted one million farmers under FISP using both the conventional and e-voucher approaches.
Last week, Government flagged off the distribution of inputs for the 2018/2019 farming season.
Mr Katambo added that for the coming farming season, four fertiliser suppliers and 10 seed companies have been engaged to help in the effective and efficient distribution of inputs.
Other institutions are Barclays Bank Zambia, Zanaco, Ecobank, United Bank for Africa, National Savings and Credit Bank, Indo Zambia Bank, AtlasMara and two non-banking institutions.
The total amount for the e-voucher is K2,100. Out of this amount, Government is providing K1,700 while the targeted small-scale commercially-oriented farmers are contributing K400 each.
Government has also introduced the Weather Index Insurance to make the subsidy programme climate-smart by getting a K100 as crop insurance premium from the K400 that a farmer contributes.
Certainly, Government is trying to ensure that agriculture becomes one of the major contributors to the treasury.
However, to attain positive results, stakeholders should also be willing to work with the State.
It is for this reason that Nyimba Investments Limited has come on board to help deliver inputs to farmers in time.
Nyimba Investments Limited, which is a wholly-owned Zambian company, is among the top commodity trading companies in the country dealing in various agro-supplies such as fertiliser, chemicals, seed, soya beans, maize and wheat.
Company head of marketing Willings Mulendema explains that the firm has been engaged to supply nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK) and Urea fertilisers to farmers under FISP in North-Western, Copperbelt and Lusaka provinces.
“Government has given us a contract to supply 40,000 tonnes of fertiliser to 108,000 farmers and we have already positioned about 50,000 tonnes of stock in the areas were we will be distributing this season,” Mr Mulendema said.
He is positive that the decision by Government to revert about 400,000 e-voucher system beneficiary farmers to conventional FISP will help address the challenges experienced in the last farming season.
“We want to thank Government for bringing back FISP. Previously, there was 100 percent e-voucher. However, it was very difficult to operate the e-voucher in very remote areas due to infrastructure problems such as the absence of banks, bad network connectivity and roads,” Mr Mulendema noted.
Indeed, now is the time for Zambians to wake up and embrace agriculture as a source of livelihood and generate adequate resources to end hunger and poverty, and boost economic growth.
ESTHER MSETEKA, Lusaka