JACK ZIMBA, Chipata
IT WAS designed to ease the process by which small-scale and subsistence farmersâ€™ access farm inputs, but when it was implemented in selected districts late last year, the e-Voucher system presented more challenges than expected.
As late as January 20, some farmers listed to benefit from the e-Voucher had yet to be given the electronic cards so they could access seed and fertilisers.
Last week, President Lungu flew into Eastern Province, which is famed for high agriculture production, for a three-day working visit.
Not surprising, top on Mr Lunguâ€™s agenda was agriculture. In particular, the President wanted to understand the challenges the new system presented, with the hope of avoiding similar hiccups in the next farming season.
Plus, he wanted to check on the damage to maize crops caused by stalk borers in Lundazi district and to try and convince banks in the region to finance agro processing.
FISP a failure
For about 15 years, the Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP), has been the driving engine of agriculture in Zambia, especially for small-time farmers. But many experts agree that this engine failed to live up to its objective.
One of the main objectives of FISP was to graduate peasants or subsistence farmers into small-scale farmers, by providing them with the initial capital investment in form of fertiliser and seed.
But this did not happen, as many beneficiaries of the FISP became overly-dependent on it and could not wean themselves from government support.
As Minister of Agriculture Dora Siliya once put, the FISP stopped making any economic sense.
â€œThe FISP programme was supposed to help farmers with the potential to grow but as it turns out, it has stopped making any economic sense as shown by the fact that some farmers who are the beneficiaries are still failing to raise the K400 deposit fees to access inputs,â€ Ms Siliya told Parliament in November.
Besides, the programme had many loopholes, giving rise to â€œghost farmersâ€ â€“ farmers who only existed on paper and not in reality.
â€œThe FISP programme has become a failed project and Government is seriously relooking at the programme. Last year, more than 7,000 ghost farmers were removed from the FISP list which had seen Government pay a lot of money to non-existent farmers. FISP was supposed to turn farmers into business venture so that the beneficiaries could graduate to commercial farmers and be weaned off the programme. But as it turns out, the beneficiaries have turned the programme into a social cash transfer to which people continue to return,â€ Ms Siliya said.
In 2012, Government announced the E-Voucher system to replace FISP. The e-Voucher system was supposed to be more efficient and transparent, saving Government huge sums of money by eliminating undeserving farmers.
But when it was rolled out as a pilot programme in some districts across the country last year, the e-Voucher system got clogged with challenges, causing delays in farmers accessing inputs. And for the farmers who depend on rain for irrigation, they were in a race against time.
The situation had become a maze, and President Lungu seemed determined to go through and find the solution.
Mr Lungu met with agro dealers and representatives of various banks in the province.
He said he was meeting the stakeholders with â€œan open mindâ€ in order to find ways of correcting the system.
The President made it clear at the onset of the meeting that all he wanted were answers to the problems that dogged the system, and was not trying to play the blame game.
â€œGentlemen, we are not in court. You are not on trial,â€ he assured the stakeholders.
Abdul Waheed Ahmed, who is an agro dealer in Chipata made an impassioned appeal to Mr Lungu.
â€œMy humble appeal to you Your Excellence is that maybe this coming year the e-Vouchers can be activated much earlier so it gives the farmers a choice of who to buy from and gives them a chance to plan what to grow,â€ he said.
Three banks were involved in distributing the e-Voucher cards in the province: United Bank of Africa, Bank ABC and Zanaco.
According to Minister of Finance Felix Mutati, Government paid various banks across the country K1 billion for the e-Voucher cards on December 23.
â€œThe banking community had challenges in terms of the volumes of cards that were required to be printed. So the issue was not on the money side, the issue was not on the agriculture side, the issue was for the banks to respond, particularly two big banks that were very slow, who were given over hundred thousand cards to print,â€ he told farmers in Kafue earlier this month.
Mr Mutati said the banks were overwhelmed by the amount of work involved in printing the electronic cards.
A representative of Zanaco, Botha Lungu, explained that part of the delay in activating the cards was the late transmission of information from the District Agricultural Coordinators in the province.
And Paul Moyo of Barclays explained that his bankâ€™s role in the chain was to distribute point of sale machines.
â€œThe challenge that I saw in that is just the demand coming from the agro dealers; to some extent we didnâ€™t meet their demand,â€ he said
He said the bank has requested for more point of sale from the headquarters in Lusaka in order to cover more areas.
A common challenge presented by various speakers during the meeting was that the printing and distributing of the e-Voucher cards started late, hence there was no room to make corrections where errors were detected.
â€œIdeally, when should the cards have been received?â€ President Lungu asked Roy Lumamba, who is Eastern Province agricultural co-ordinator.
â€œPersonally I would like to have a situation where activation is done locally, other than sending the information to Lusaka,â€ Mr Lumamba said.
Mr Lungu responded: â€œEverything happens in Lusaka, unfortunately. But we are trying to decentralise our governance system.â€
â€œI think we need to start planning for 2017-2018 season based on lessons we have encountered during this period,â€ said Mr Lungu.
Hopefully, lessons have been learned so far, albeit the hard way for all the stakeholders.
Mr Lungu also wondered why, despite it being an agricultural hub, Eastern Province has no agro processing industry to talk about.
â€œWhy canâ€™t we do cornflakes here in Chipata?â€ Mr Lungu asked the meeting.
The President wants value addition to the crops produced in the province, in order to maximise benefits from agriculture.
Mr Lungu asked the bankers and farming community to have foresight, and invest in view of the government plan to build a railway line connecting Eastern Province to the Tazara railway, which is one of the major trade links with East Africa and the sea.
â€œIâ€™m sure you have heard that we want to extend the railway line from Chipata into Petauke and into Serenje to link up with TAZARA; opening up the route the Congo and other places. That is a prospect which every businessman who has foresight and vision wants to work on and pounce on the opportunity that will come with it,â€ he said.
But the banks are not forthcoming in this regard, said Zambia National Farmers Union regional manager Virgil Malambo.
He urged the banks to be proactive in helping farmers with loans to expand production or go into agro processing.
Mr Lungu left Chipata with a promise that he would form committees to resolve the challenges in the e-Voucher system and that the 2017-2018 farming season will be different.
JACK ZIMBA, Chipata