Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Back to the Land (1)

Choma, 9 January 2010

Agriculture in Zambia: No 1. In this series we'll stroll into the agricultural scene, picking up issues as we come across them, adopting the perspective of the small scale farmer. Below some initial background.


Slightly less than half of Zambia's twelve million population lives in rural areas and by far most of these people derive their livelihood from farming. The rural communities, ironically, are prone to seasonal hunger and less seasonal malnutrition. They, together with the urban poor living in shanties or low grade compounds (townships) constitute the near 80% of the population that does not make the poorest of the poor threshhold of USD 1 a day and hence place Zambia firmly in the premier league of poorest countries in the world.

Zambia has a large landmass, sufficient seasonal rainfall, a low population density and yet barely feeds its people by its own agricultural resources. More precisely: a small minority has more than enough, a larger minority gets by and a substantial majority does not eat well. What else would you expect in a country where poverty reigns? In fact, in this case, you could. Well, to some extent.

Agricultural/rural development has been a major concern of government since independence in 1964. This concern has been complemented and supplemented by very substantial support of all sorts of international development organisations, the famous "cooperating partners." Policies by government and development agencies alike have gone through major changes, most spectacularly as of 1991 by a shift in focus from government controlled agriculture to a dominant role of the private sector with prices set by a fully "liberalized" market. In Zambia, other than in the Western world, not a single agricultural product has a guaranteed, enforced, bottom price. An interesting consequence of this crude capitalism is that farmers in good farming years get little money for their crops because there is much of it, and in bad years may get better prices for a standard quantity but for most there will not be enough to profitably sell.

There are a large variety of farmers in Zambia: ranging from illiterate subsistence farmers cultivating a few acres or less to sophisticated academically trained farm managers cultivating thousands of hectares or more. In numbers by far most farmers are small scale farmers, working on traditionally obtained land with most or all of the labour supplied by family members. The large majority of farmers, no matter how different they are in scale of operation and resources, have one thing in common: they have difficulty and often great difficulty to make ends meet.

The reasons why for most farming is not profitable or insufficiently profitable are complex. The same is true for deficiencies in food security (meaning here: having those foodstuffs that constitute a balanced diet) in rural areas where you would expect people to grow what they can not buy.

As a lay farmer or outsider one might observe and be struck by:
  • The lack of accessible printed information in durable form. There are no genuine handbooks for farmers on whatever major agricultural component. What we have are agricultural textbooks for secondary school pupils (Zimbabwean in origin, but not bad), occasional donor financed publications on specific topics as a rule printed locally (meaning in Zambia) usually of such poor quality that these books or booklets inevitably fall into pieces once opened and incidentally published booklets, sometimes good and useful as those published by the Conservation Farming Unit. There must be all kinds of research papers, unpublished or out of print, and hence "out of communication" and therefore practically non-existent.
  • Major deficiencies in education/vocational training. Agricultural colleges often are of poor quality and address students having a full form V diploma ("O level" = high school) including mathematics, agriculture and preferably science and biology. The large majority of rural farmers does not have such qualifications and for them is no appropriate full-time agricultural training. Hence they depend on "traditionally transmitted knowledge and practice," local learning from fellow farmers, and occasional advice or support from agricultural extension services or services supported by development agencies. The large majority of agricultural practitioners lacks formal agricultural training and has poor or no access to modern information media.
  • Poor or non-supply of agricultural inputs, ranging from seeds to simple tools and equipment to those constituting major capital investment. One should note that during the past years there has been considerable improvement but it still holds true that simple tools like the dutch hoe, or the very useful small hand-drawn cart, or the motorized multipurpose cultivator are not available in the district capitals which also are the agricultural centres.
Simple gardening tools unknown and unavailable in Zambia
  • Lack of financial resources and inability to access affordable investment / development finance. Once there was an agricultural bank, the Lima Bank, which after its collaps has not been succeeded by a financial institution which is dedicated to help farmers rather than exploit their plight. Getting a regular commercial loan from a bank is tantamount to the loss of your independence as a farmer; you basically are now working for the bank as that is where all of your "profit" must go in order to repay the loan. Such loans quite often mean the death warrant for the indebted farm.
  • The dominant seasonality of agriculture: much work during the rainy season and little during the dry season. The largest single obstacle here is water (availability, cost and labour of irrigation).
  • Lack of genuine local organisation (i.e., in a farming community, more or less in walking or bicycling distance) that effectively tackles common problems, and endeavours tasks for the common good (such as marketing, getting a borehole, improving feeder roads, buying seed together &c.).
Less obvious are restraints to which many Zambian "village farmers" are subjected. Farmers doing better may be accused of whichcraft. Or become targets for excessive demands for help. These are powerful, negative leveling mechanisms, detrimental to agricultural development.

Mobility is yet another factor negatively affecting long term improvements, such as the planting of trees. Villagers shift or may shift for whatever reason and many therefore are not inclined to mid and long planning. As a result ventures that take years to mature (harvest) are not entertained.

Lastly, in general, farmers are conservative. Often for good reason, but not always. At times, here, one thinks they are more laid back than is good for them. But then again, often there are good reasons (at least in the farmer's mind) for not-doing what an outsider might go for.

Farmers produce for themselves and for the market. To expand the farm one needs capital and such capital must mostly come from the profitable sale of farm produce. 

Profit margins on agricultural products are low. Most people are poor to very poor, many grow at least some food, hence demand by the urban and semi-urban consumers market is not so big, and the demand that there is, is largely of a conservative nature. This market is largely served by markets (formal and informal) and vendors. Much of the fresh food in supermarkets is non Zambian - sometimes because the products are not grown in Zambia at all, sometimes because supply is considered erratic lacking consistent quality. The commercial market of organisations (like marketing boards) and companies purchasing cash crops and / or lifestock addresses mostly the large, commercial farmers.   

Closely allied to the limitations of the market place(s) is the cost of marketing itself, in this case literally of getting products to the points of sale. Transport in Zambia is expensive and / or time consuming. Ox carts are slow, the bicycle can not carry much, lifts need to be paid for, pickup's and vannettes are outrageously expensive (whether new or second hand) and on top of that Zambia has the highest fuel prices of the entire region.

Indeed, the scene conforms to a classic situation of un- and under-development, with exclusive enclaves of profitable commercial enterprise and succesful traditional farming.

In the next text we'll look into some options open to the small scale family farmer.

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