Subsidies, New Methods Lift Zambian Farm Yields

Peasant farmer Joseph Mhlanga proudly points to the pile of maize or corncobs in his modest house: a good crop for him that is part of Zambia’s bumper harvest this year.

“This is my maize from this year. I plan to start shelling it soon,” said Mhlanga, a spry 76-year-old retired schoolteacher who farms a two-hectare plot in a village just north of Zambia’s capital Lusaka.

Zambia is expected to harvest over three million tonnes of maize, its life-blood crop, for its 2010-11 season compared to 2.8 million tonnes last year, resulting in a surplus of 1.6 million tonnes.

Mhlanga says he has benefited from two things: a government subsidy program that provides fertilizer and seeds to peasants and new farming methods aimed at boosting yields.

Food security was high on the agenda of a recent G20 meeting of farm ministers in France as prices soar for staple products that feed the world, hitting the poor the hardest.

Bolstering farm output through investments and the use of technologies was a key theme at the meeting, expected to be a forum in which tighter regulation and more open exchanges on food stock data are debated.

LITTLE GOES A LONG WAY

In some countries, a little has gone a long way and Zambia is a case in point: modest help to poor farmers and new techniques are giving hope on a continent that largely missed out on the green revolution that lifted grain output elsewhere.

In Zambia, one of the world’s poorest countries, raising yields is a top government priority but it is also seen saving the government money in the long run.

“It is good for political stability because it ensures food security at the household and national level while also providing income to the rural population,” said Chibamba Kanyama, an analyst with the Economics Association of Zambia, a think-tank.

“The government has found it cheaper to subsidize maize production instead of importing the staple food,” he said.

There is a political dimension here too as the program has discouraged rural migration to urban areas and the governing Movement for Multiparty Democracy’s support base is in the countryside and among the peasantry.

NEW METHODS

Mhlanga said since he switched to “conservation farming” methods and started getting government inputs about two years ago, he has lifted his crop by around 20 per cent.

Mhlanga said he no longer plows but concentrates his fertilizer in holes or basins where he directly plants his crop.

“You lose too much soil from wind and other things plowing. And you exhaust it,” he said as he walked through a section of his plot which lies fallow during the brief and mild Zambian winter.

He also takes his weeds and digs them back into the soil for additional compost and rotates his crop.

“See, I grew maize here this season but next season I will plant cotton here and maize over there. If you have ground-nuts then the next year you will have good nitrogen there for something else,” he said, pointing to his field.

Mhlanga reckons he will get 50 bags of maize this year weighing 50 kgs (110 pounds) each.

He says about 20 will feed him and his family while he will sell the rest to the government’s food reserve agency, which will give him 65,000 kwacha ($13.50) for each 50-kg bag.

From that you would subtract 10,000 kwacha a bag to have someone deliver it for you on a truck. So a Zambian peasant farmer lives on the edge at the best of times and a bad harvest can be ruinous.

If you sell to the state it takes about two weeks to get your money. Private roadside traders will give you cash immediately but offer half the price.

Down the road, Catherine Tembo, 42, carrying one of her eight children, stands by a roadside post where private traders were weighing and paying for bags of maize delivered by other women in her village.

“When I sell mine, I will sell some here and some to the state. These traders pay less but sometimes you need money,” she said.

She said she was grateful for the government subsidy which she reckoned saved her about $65. The program provides farmers with four 50-kg bags of fertilizer and one bag of seed.

It used to be double that but the government cut it in half while increasing the number of recipients which this past season stood at 890,000 farmers from 500,000 the year before.

The government also wants peasants to farm smaller, more manageable plots in an effort to boost yields.

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Thegovernment hasfounditcheaper tosubsidizemaize productioninstead ofimportingthe staplefood.”

– CHIBAMBA KANYAMA, AN ANALYST WI TH THE ECONOMICS ASSOCIATION OF ZAMBI A

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