Maize growing has and remains a very difficult venture such that any incentive such as the new maize price is a motivating factor.
There is no better news that elates a farmer than a weather report assuring of a good yield or a pronouncement of an increase in the price of the crop he or she cultivates.
Can you then imagine what kind of activity maize farmers countrywide plunged into last week after President Edgar Lungu announced a K5 top-up to the cost of a 50-kilogramme (kg) bag of maize which the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) earlier pegged at K70?
Those with mobile phones rushed to the calculator command or application to work out how much their crop would rake in at K75 per bag. Others picked up pens, pencils and paper, yet the remainder without these items bent down to scribe on bare ground just to find out what this time the fruit of their labour would entail.
As the majority was puzzling out figures they proportionally imagined how much fertiliser they would procure in the next farming season after the crop sale, or how much of that amount would go to school fees, what about a portion to meet salaries and wages for workers?
President Lungu could not have been more apt when he announced the top-up and stated:
“Our farmers should be given the encouragement so that they can farm more because they are poor people in the rural areas, so we are going to increase the price of maize, as FRA of course. We will be going upwards to K75.”
Even if the K5 increase does not motivate one, surely it will make you at least smile even with the web of intricacies that go with maize farming.
On face value maize growing is simple and attractive. You plant at the onset of the first rains in November, by March/April the following year harvests follow in form of green maize for sale and home consumption.
But it is that simplicity that those long in the business have attested openly that maize growing is perhaps one of the most difficult, risky and complicated ventures.
If you were lucky the weather did not derail your plans, late delivery of implements such fertilisers and other requisites will affect your yield next season. If by the grace of God the farmer overcomes the above bottlenecks and manages a good harvest, he/she will have to contend with storage and disposal to avoid the grain going to waste.
As if that is not enough, transport costs and lack of it to markets may hamper progress. Even with more than 50 years after political independence, there are still areas in Zambia inaccessible to main roads and farmers are compelled to sell their crop to neigbouring countries for a song or to the product of the free market, commonly known as briefcase businessmen and women.
In retrospect maize growing has and remains a very difficult venture that any incentive such as the new maize price is a motivating factor and goes a long way to encourage those in the industry to push ahead.
Historically farming, though a critical component in the development of a country, has taken backstage in terms priority in funds allocation, investment or improvement, especially in a mineral dependent economy like Zambia’s.
In the past political messages to encourage agriculture were different. They focused on the need to promote agriculture because copper and its by products were a wasting asset. Even then not much was made to turn around this vital sector which in other countries including the United States and most parts of Europe is a leading contributor to the economy and one of the largest employers.
Shortly after independence a lot of labels in form of programmes were touted meant to focus on agriculture as a fall back activity to mining, they included operation food take off, rural reconstruction programme, state farms, Zambia National service, the list is endless but however, they weathered just at the same speed as they were initiated.
That is why even at this late hour there is hope in Government efforts to revitalize this industry which is a money spinner and could anchor the copper economy fittingly. A good maize price is one such effort. Another incentive includes the current countrywide rehabilitation of roads and opening up more.
Good and accessible roads will encourage farmers in the remotest areas of the Zambia to exploit agriculture as they will not have problems to ferry the produce to profitable and stable markets.
The recently announced programme to establish milling companies in most parts of the country will not only guarantee food sufficiency but would also provide maize farmers markets where they will spend less or non at a all to dispose of their crop. Above all the price of mealie meal will be affordable if not absolutely cheap; in the end the product will be available to more populations.
When such an exercise develops imagine the number jobs to be created, because these firms will produce maize meal, including products such as stock feed to benefit poultry and dairy farmers.
It does not make business sense that maize grown in Mafinga in Muchinga, Mongu, Western province, or Chienge in Luapula should be taken to a milling plant on the Copperbelt or Lusaka.
Therefore a bigger challenge for maize apart from a good price is to initiate more ways to reduce the cost of growing this important grain. At the moment maize production is not only complicated but risky and labour intensive that profits are easily wiped out.
One of the ways is to reduce the cost of maize production especially in rural areas is by way of fertiliser substation and reverting to old modes such as conservation farming where compost- grass leaves or dry twigs mixed with soil, or the use of animal waste are used instead ammonium nitrate and other brands.
Most people will remember that years back farmers in villages survived through the use of compost and mere crop rotation and still harvested enough to feed on and barter with surrounding communities. The advent of independence commercialised maize growing and promoted the use of modern fertilizers killing initiatives of peasants.
In the process, the Nitrogen Chemicals of Zambia (NCZ), a fertilizer plant in Kafue was established. As history has shown NCZ has done very little to address the problem as the product from there is sometimes more expensive than imported stock.
Beyond that the company has created more problems than it was expected to solve and more money has been sunk into the venture but to no avail.
In the end farmers bear the brunt as fertilizers are sometimes delivered late. The erratic delivery of the commodity is sometimes not deliberate but inadequate funds delay the process. But then weather does not allow for bureaucracies maize growing still proceeds.
In certain cases inefficiency simply creeps in as wrong fertilizers are delivered. Instead of top dressing compound D has been dumped on hapless and anxious farmers, and by the time the correct stock is located and rushed to needy areas, the families end up with stunted maize.
That is not the end, some farmers who manage to get fertilizers and other farm requisites may eke out some maize for sale, but that does not guarantee an easy ride, as payments are never on time. Last season there were protests over late payment especially in Eastern province and parts of Central province.
More frustratingly, there appeared to be no correct information, while on one hand the central official stand was that money had been released those on the ground pleaded ignorance. These and others are aspects which make maize growing an expensive and frightening venture.
As Government continues to inject incentives in maize growing it will be important for Zambians at grass root level to support such initiatives by fostering communal efforts to easy up challenges in the industry. For example farmers could put resources together and procure a grinding mill for use in that particular community.
Such an asset would not only empower inhabitants in that location, but the maize would be processed by members with mealie meal trading cheaply and the surplus sold to urban areas. On its part Government would do well to improve distribution of agricultural inputs such a fertilizer and grain bags. It will be important also to seriously promote the return to conservation farming alongside modern methods.
For many years now marketing has been a national failure especially after 1991 when co-operatives and Namboard, (National Marketing Board) were decimated throwing farmers to the levers of the free market which gave birth to pretenders, at the most con-persons referred to above as briefcase businessmen and women.
In the past the distribution of farm implements was orderly whether fertiliser or grain bags. Transportation was not as chaotic with the Zambia Air force or Army called in to save grain that was stuck in areas that could not be accessible by road.
May be it is also time to review the role of the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) whether it will be relevant as a stand alone institution to do all the tasks. Why not look at some of the positive side of co-operatives that could improve maize production and distribution for the good of the country?
There is a lot that Government needs to look at to ensure maize growing becomes cheap and profitable. Zambia is sitting on a gold mine by continuously not improving maize production, as the country is in the middle of a yearning market for the grain and its products.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one such market which can suck in anything in form of food, and the maize being produced in Zambia now is nothing compared to the demand for the commodity there. Angola is yet another calling outlet, even countries like Kenya, a more agricultural developed country than Zambia has imported maize from here.
But beyond that for the last decade most countries in Southern Africa have been victims of maize deficits when Zambia has not had bad rains and could have produced more for export.
What however, should be inspiring is that there is still time to make amends to transform Zambia into a bread basket, the country qualifies to be.
It is, therefore, imperative to continue with efforts that make maize production cheap and profitable, then we shall have few farmers calculating profits on bare ground as with more money in their pockets the majority will afford mobile phones and take stock of the earnings from agriculture by use of a calculator