By Jeff Kapembwa
LUSAKA – Zambia’s bumper maize harvest realised in the last rainy season is under serious threat and may intrude into the 2021 polls due in the Southern African country.
This came to light as droves of farmers plan to abandon growing the staple food because of a ‘unilateral’ price impasse.
The government, through its Food Reserve Agency has pegged the price of the staple food at K60 ($7) for a 50 kilogramme bag, compared to last year’s K75 ($8,3) it allowed FRA to purchase maize from farmers in the country side, part of which has formed 500,000 tonnes the country needed for reserves. Zambia has set 600,000 tons for reserves this year.
The change of heart, has raised a row among the farming community, with the country’s leading farming organisation-Zambia National Farmers Union rejecting the proposed selling price to FRA, which is deemed ‘exploitative’ given the investment the farmers had put in to production and harvesting the crop. The harvest was highest in the history of Zambia, which until now was importing the crop. The Government argues that it was ready to buy maize from would be prospective sellers at the set price and that anyone was free to opt for exporting, should they be unhappy with the price set by the FRA. Government’s stance has raised fears of an imminent maize crisis by 2020/21, because many farmers will convert to cultivating cash crops, which include wheat and soya, instead.
Zambia National Farmers Union, argues that the set floor price was a mockery as it was below the production cost of K71 ($7,5) per 50 kilogrammes of maize produced. The said cost of production only applied to those farmers who benefited from government’s Farmers Inputs Support Programme, which subsidised the said farmers.
Those who did not benefit from this programme had a higher production cost rate at K81 or $9. This is because such farmers either borrowed funds to finance the crop or used their own money.
“This is a mockery because of the 3,6 million tonnes bumper harvested this year, 1,4 million came from farmers supported by FISP while the bulk came from farmers who either paid cash or borrowed to finance the remaining 2,2 million bags,” Jervis Zimba, leader of the leading farming group said.
While the Zambian farmer was getting the pegged floor price for a 50-kilogramme bag of maize, their counterparts in Malawi and Zimbabwe were getting an equivalent of K110 and K190 (averaging $21) for a similar size of maize sold. The farmers also accuse government of being reluctant to consult the affected stakeholders.
“We were not consulted before this price was arrived at, but we can still correct the situation before hundreds of farmers are plunged into destitution,” Zimba pointed out.
Farmers, ZNFU added, had worked on long term strategies and unless the matter is redressed with consent by all players, a recurrence of the cotton saga was imminent as many are now opting out of maize growing in preference to cash crops which are cost effective.
“This is why cotton is in serious shortage in Zambia because most farmers abandoned it after the price crash of three years ago and since then it has not recovered and may take time to do so. The same fate is likely to befell maize because many farmers are looking elsewhere to realise returns,” he pointed out.
However, President Edgar Lungu says, he would not want to intervene in the maize saga but would rather allow the market forces dictate the correct price and value of maize, while taking cognisance of the possibility of the crop being smuggled out of the country for better returns.
But agriculture permanent secretary, Julius Shawa supports the FRA’s decision to peg the price at K60 arguing that there is need to allow the agency to set realistic prices of the staple food while making profit. He urged those affected to look for buyers elsewhere as FRA could not afford to procure the entire harvest.
But Zimba says ZNFU would not argue over the FRA’s unilateral decision and has urged farmers to hold on to their crop or better still look for alternative buyers willing to given them a better return on their investment. He warned that the crisis will begin to show by 2020/21.”
‘Briefcase buyers’ in the countryside, are however, taking advantage of desperate farmers who are cashing in on the same 50 kilogramme bag, fetching a paltry K25 ($3) per bag, which Zimba argued was exploitative.
“No farmer has been spared from these exploitative prices from FRA whether they were under FISP or not.
“Is there any reasonable economic reason why such a farmer should continue producing maize? “It is an assault on the agriculture sector and an insult to the farmers for FRA to maintain this low price,” he said.
It is however feared, the case of 1990 would replicate in the next two to three seasons because some people in the sector do not take the farmers’ plight at heart.