Agricultural Diversification: Dethroning King Maize

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Read full article By Derrick Silimina @ Development and Cooperation Photo Credit: Derrick Silimina

Zambia is reconsidering the priority it gives to maize as both a cash crop and dietary staple. But in a culture where maize and food are nearly synonymous, diversifying crops and diets may be a tough sell.
In Zambia, maize is by far the most important dietary staple and a main beneficiary of agricultural subsidies. But in coming years, maize may have to make room for competing crops.

Inonge Wina, Zambia’s vice-president, recently startled people by calling on them to vary their diets, eating less maize and more millet, sorghum, cassava, rice and sweet potatoes. “The switch to more nutritious foods is one of the low-cost and effective ways of addressing stunting and malnutrition in the country,” Wina said.

Her proposal runs counter to Zambia’s culture. Zambians typically eat maize-based meals two or three times per day. Many do not consider themselves to have eaten at all if they have not eaten maize or something made of maize. Particularly popular is a stiff maize-based porridge known as nshima. Maize is also used to brew beer.

The vice president’s comments come at a time when maize farmers face a host of other problems. Many of them see their costs going up, while the government-owned Food Reserve Agency (FRA), which buys their produce, continues to pay them a constant 110 kwacha (the equivalent of € 4.6) per 50 kilogramme bag of white maize. The Zambia National Farmers’ Union (ZNFU) says the price should be raised to 130 kwacha, in view of farmers’ rising costs for fertilisers, seeds, chemicals, transport, electricity and labour.

At the same time, a subsidy programme on which many maize farmers depend is failing to deliver necessary inputs like fertiliser or pesticides on time. “We are nearing the planting season and land preparation is underway, but we still do not have the inputs we expected to get in July,” says Veronica Tembo, a small-scale farmer from Lusaka’s Chongwe district. “Farmers should only have to worry about when the rains will come, not about undelivered inputs.”

The Zambia’s Farmers Input Support Programme (FISP) was launched by the government in 2002 to provide subsidised seeds and fertiliser to maize farmers and to involve private traders in the supply of inputs. In recent years the programme has been plagued by mismanagement and corruption. At the same time, it has fostered dependency among farmers.

“Most small-scale farmers on FISP have been beneficiaries for over five years, even though they were meant to ‘graduate’ to self-sufficiency after two years, says Robert Tembo, a farmer in Chipata, eastern Zambia. He adds that some politicians use FISP to gain favour with voters and stay in power.

On the other hand, the ZNFU wants more farmers to benefit from FISP. “Of the 3.3 million metric tonnes of maize produced, 1.3 million are grown by small-scale farmers who do not benefit from FISP,” says ZNFU spokesman Calvin Kaleyi. “With the FRA prices at 110 kwacha, maize farmers will be bankrupted and production will decline next year.”

Producers of other cereals, vegetables and fruits, meanwhile, are vying for a piece of the FISP action. “We too need subsidised inputs, just as maize farmers do,” says Monde Sitwala, a rice farmer from Mongu district. “The government should recognise rice as a profitable smallholder cash crop and a major contributor to national food security.”

When this essay was finalised in mid-October, however, Zambia seemed to be close to a severe financial crisis because of high foreign indebtedness. How that crisis might play out, and how it would affect government capacities was anybody’s guess.


Posted on

November 9, 2020

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