Zambia is a country endowed with vast stretches of land suitable for agriculture. Since 2001 the Government has embarked on improving access to inputs and finance for small scale farmers as a way of diversifying the economy from a heavy reliance on copper production and exports. In most parts of the country, especially among the rural and peri-urban populations, agriculture is already the major source of livelihood income. Income from the export of agricultural products has been increasing every year.
Dangers of a mono crop
But there has been a tendency to depend on the same crop (maize) year in year out even when it has shown signs of failure when conditions are not favourable. The southern half of the country has lately become a drought prone area, recording below average annual rainfall figures. The cultivation of the traditional maize crop in the region has become difficult and unprofitable. Low rainfall patterns have also affected Eastern Province, and parts of Western and Central provinces.
Poor yields due to poor rainfall have eroded the livelihood base as well as the income generation capacities among the farming communities. And the most affected people are small scale and peasant farmers who entirely depend on rain fed crops.
Alternative crops – advantages and disadvantages
Cow peas, mixed beans and soya beans are alternative crops to maize. The advantage of these alternative crops is that they require less rainfall and they mature early. A critical aspect is their management, specifically spraying and other care needs, which significantly affects the yield. Almost all types of beans get spoiled where there is a lot of rain. They need a lot of moisture at the time of planting (for germination) but after that only minimum rainfall is necessary for them to mature.
Traditionally, the people of Kawambwa district of Luapula province, especially in Folotiya, Musungu and Kota areas, have always grown beans and sold them to briefcase buyers at very low prices. This same crop is then transported to urban centres such as Chisokone market in Kitwe and Soweto market in Lusaka where it is sold at an extremely high price. It’s not difficult to understand how frustrating this is for the farmers, after they have invested their time and money in seed, land preparation and management of the crop. The same situation is true for soya beans and cow peas.
Agricultural diversification initiatives
In order to move farmers away from maize, a number of International Development Organisations (IDOs), the National Farmers Union and other national agricultural organisations, together with the Government, have been promoting the cultivation of other crops such as soya beans, cow peas, groundnuts, mixed beans and cassava. These crops offer a huge potential income source as they are of high value and are currently produced in small quantities. Soya beans are also important as an ingredient in stock feeds.
A baseline study has been done by the World Food Programme (WFP) in 2011, for their programme “Purchase 4 Progress” (P4P). This study reveals that the major hindrance to the cultivation of these crops is lack of market information and access by small scale farmers, as the majority of these farmers are rural based, with little or no education.
To address this, the World Food Programme is currently promoting the cultivation of cowpeas in the Mazabuka, Monze and Choma Districts of Southern Province. WFP offers to buy the crop upon harvesting to assure a ready market for the farmer. In the same vain, WFP is also promoting the cultivation of mixed beans in Kawambwa district of Luapula province.
A way forward
The agriculture sector needs to create deliberate policies and strategies aimed at moving towards a balanced approach that gives farmers ready access to inputs as well as a fair market for their produce. Cowpeas, mixed beans and soya beans can generate a significant income through exports within the region, improving household livelihoods and income sources.
In order to convince the farmer to diversify their crops, market access and price information must be affordable and readily available. Furthermore, the farmer will require a lot of training, re-training and access extension services. All of this requires a proper and well defined policy structure with definite objectives and desired outcomes measurable within the overall agricultural framework for sustainable development viz-a-viz the millennium development goals.
Government has over the years wasted a lot of resources in times of food distress and drought through the distribution of relief maize to affected areas. Yet, if the same communities diversified into cultivation of some of the crops above, they would have enough disposable income to buy food stuffs of their choice.
Farmers growing cowpeas, mixed beans and soya beans should be supported just as much as maize farmers are. There has to be a complete turnaround in the approach to agriculture diversification. Emphasis must be placed on the small scale farmers who contribute more than half of the production per year to the national food reserves. In other words, support must and should match stated objectives and aims in order to drastically increase levels of production for these diversified crops. This will help move Zambia towards realising its dream of becoming the bread basket of the region and beyond.
Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the writer and are not necessarily the views of The Best of Zambia. We invite you to leave a comment below.