The MMD election campaign has quickly run out of positive ideas and is depending heavily upon negative propaganda against Michael Sata and the PF. This is so inventive that you can hear two opposite things at one time e.g. (a) the PF is slavishly following MMD's agricultural policies and (b) that PF is going to dismantle the central backbone of MMD's agricultural policies, the fertiliser supply and maize system that serves small farmers in the villages.
To straighten this particular canard out in our heads let us begin by noting that no post-independence government, under any president, and featuring any minister for agriculture, has ever evaded the responsibility for supplying small farmers with fertiliser (on subsidised terms) and the responsibility of buying all or most of the small farmer crop (again on subsidised terms). It has been going on for at least 40 years and forms part of every government's "social contract" with the rural population. So there is nothing new about "FISP" (the input supply programme) or the FRA (the buying and transportation institution); though the acronyms have changed a fair bit over the decades. So have the precise mechanisms (e.g. non-repayable loans versus actual subsidies). Copper prices being high, the MMD government currently has more money that it can afford to spend that has been the case for most governments but there is nothing fundamentally new in the principles and policies in operation.
My own experience with the maize-fertiliser social contract encompasses in short order a disastrous season (1991-1992) and a bumper harvest (1992-1993). I became minister of agriculture food and fisheries at the end of 1991, and quickly discovered that the previous UNIP government had run out of steam - there was a large deficit in the national maize stocks that were needed to feed us until the next harvest, and there was a deficiency of fertiliser to top-dress the crop for 1991-1992. I took emergency measures on both counts, importing (white) maize from South Africa and top dressing fertiliser from the same source.
This should have seen us in the clear but unfortunately the "drought of the century" struck southern Africa at the end of January 1992, just as the crop was flowering, and left Zambia with no choice but to import a huge amount of maize (which had to come from the Americas and was therefore yellow in colour). Food-for-work and other strategies were initiated to feed the rural hungry. In addition a recovery programme featuring over 100,000 of fertiliser imports was launched and with good will from donors and others resulted in a "bumper harvest" at the end of the 1992-93 growing season, 80 per cent of it coming from small farmers.
In the light of my experience between 1991 and 1993, I am extremely well acquainted with the fertiliser-maize-smallholder nexus and government's responsibilities in its regard. I understand its role in national food security and, above all, the role of fertiliser and buying subsidies in transferring income from 'town' to 'country'.
However, to appreciate the benefits of the maize-fertiliser system does not mean that one cannot ask questions about its efficiency in doing its job. Of every million kwacha spent in subsidies how much gets to the poor - and particularly the poorest of the poor? Throughout the 40-year history of the smallholder fertiliser and maize system, how many dozen of years have we had in which the inputs (which mostly means fertiliser) are too late to have maximum benefit for the farmer? In how many years has the FRA or other buying agency been late to procure the crop and pay the farmers? How many million tonnes of maize has, over the years, gone rotten in bad storage conditions? What are the distortions caused by having one crop heavily subsidised and others not?
The inefficiency of the system has caused cutbacks in fertiliser procurement and maize buying in years when copper prices have been low and the surplus funds for subsidies have been limited. Numerous squabbles between donors and government have taken place over the perceived wastage of resources.
There have been questions raised about diversification. For example, it is naturally good husbandry to grow soya beans in rotation with maize - and soya is currently the more valuable. So why doesn't the government, through FRA, guarantee a market and a cross-country price for soya? This will provide a powerful incentive for farmers to balance their cropping patterns - slowing down the acidification of Zambia's soils and providing insurance against the failure of a single crop.
And what about growing areas that are ideal for crops other than maize that are both part of the food security picture and are export worthy? Take sweet potatoes, for example; these grow like weeds in acid, sandy and wet soils of parts of the Copperbelt, North Western and Central provinces. Our Kingovwa sweet potatoes are actually sought after in markets in countries south of the Zambezi. Why not subsidise the transportation of these to our borders, to increase the profitability of crops that grow well where maize does not?
So you may rest assured that PF will not simply abandon the maize and fertiliser system. We know it well and we will improve it. If we can make it more efficient and thus effect some savings in its cost of operation, we may even expand it. And that is just the beginning of a new 40 year story.
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