Talking about a successful harvest

maize-cropHARARE - The Grain Marketing Board (GMB), the sole buyer and seller of grain in Zimbabwe, is planning to sell agricultural inputs and become a "one stop shop" for farmers.

The GMB has been mired in controversy in recent years, and has been accused of providing preferential treatment to supporters of President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU(PF) party – senior party members and military officials allegedly received distributions of scarce maize, the staple food, and were handed agricultural inputs that were then resold on the informal market at greatly increased prices.

Maize is subject to price controls in Zimbabwe. GMB corporate affairs manager Muriel Zemura told IRIN that the board was paying US$265 a ton for maize, and had arranged with agricultural input suppliers to sell fertilizer, seed, chemicals and other inputs at its depots.

“After farmers have collected their money for delivering their maize to the GMB, they will, within the same complex, be able to buy most or all the inputs that they need for the new agricultural season,” she said.

“The inputs on sale at our depots belong to the manufacturers, and not ourselves, so we are making it convenient for the farmers so that they don’t spend a lot of money on travel costs.”

Zemura dismissed any allegations of past GMB impropriety, and said so far the GMB had received fertilizer and chemicals, but not maize seed. The planting season is due to start in September/October.

The unity government, formed in February 2009 between Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, said recently it would target small-scale farmers with agricultural inputs to boost food production, but did not elaborate on how these would be distributed.

Zemura said the GMB was well-positioned to fulfil the distribution role. “Nothing has been said officially to us about distributing any inputs, but we are anticipating that it will happen. We have the skills, logistical ability, capacity, and we have a presence throughout the country.”

A combination of environmental and political factors has decimated Zimbabwe’s once thriving agricultural economy in the last decade; in the first quarter of 2009 nearly 7 million people depended on food aid.

Building on Malawi’s success

“As the government, we want to make sure that small-scale farmers in communal areas get the requisite support from the government, since they contribute between 60 [percent] and 70 percent of our grain output,” Tsvangirai told a recent meeting of businessmen and farmers in the arid province of Masvingo, 300km southeast of the capital, Harare.

He said they would borrow from the Malawian model, in which small-scale farmers had produced about 3.7 million tons of maize in 2009, compared to the 1.2 million tons produced jointly by Zimbabwe’s commercial and small-scale farmers.

“We want to make sure that this coming agricultural season is a success, through the wholehearted support from the government to at least one million households that we have targeted to assist with fertilizer and seed, and we hope that is going to go a long way in providing food security.”

Malawi first implemented an agricultural subsidy programme in early 2000, and by the 2008/09 farming season about 1.7 million small-scale farmers had benefited. Small-scale farmers were able to buy inputs at one-tenth of the usual price – the costs being borne by both donors and government – and were also not obliged to repay the balance of the subsidy.

However, Malawi’s subsidy programme has elicited concerns over being open to corruption, and not the most cost-efficient method of delivering food security.

Tendai Biti, Zimbabwe’s minister of finance, has set aside US$140 million to procure agricultural inputs for small-scale farmers. “Malawi is a very small country compared to Zimbabwe, and of the 3.8 million tons produced in that country, the bulk of the crop came from small-scale farmers who were supported to the tune of US$186 million.”

Biti said several options were being weighed by the government to ensure transparency and accountability, such as communities embarking on public works programmes and being paid in farming inputs, while another consideration was that inputs would be provided as low-cost loans, with repayments being made after the harvest.

Vulnerable groups, such as child-headed households, the elderly, and the disabled would also benefit from a US$66 million scheme to distribute inputs to them.

Too late

Renson Gasela, an agricultural expert and former head of GMB, told IRIN the distribution of agricultural inputs was being left too late.

“To start with, the government has no capacity to distribute the inputs countrywide before the onset of the rainy season between September and October. All serious farmers should have their implements like seed, fertilizer and chemicals by June,” he said.

“Have the beneficiaries been identified? Is the maize seed and fertilizer available? If the implements can get to the farmers immediately then there would be a bit of hope. Unfortunately, it looks like the whole exercise is at the planning stage, which means inputs will get to fewer farmers very late, which will create more food shortages,” he warned.

“Experience has shown that small-scale farmers have very low yields per acre. So what needs to happen is that as many of them as possible should get seed and fertilizer, so that they produce enough for their families and extra to feed the nation, but based on the lack of movement in terms of distribution of inputs, if nothing is done now, then we are facing a disaster.”

Post published in: Economy

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