Zambian small farmers frustrated

The news from our Zambian small farmers hasn’t been very encouraging lately. On October 7, Jessy Mpupulwa emailed: “We have received some rains, almost to 30mm. This year is different. Even some bags on FRA (Federal Reserve Agency) depots have been soaked and yet most of us we haven’t received our money.”

A combination of conservation farming methods and planting Musangu trees could help decrease dependency on unreliable government programs.

Zambia’s rainy season is usually from end of October/beginning of November to end of March/beginning of April. Between that time there is no rain whatsoever. The maize (corn) harvest is somewhere from Mai to July. The maize from the small farmers is often stored in open places, because no moisture is expected. Usually the maize is sold right after harvest.

As Jessy writes, this year is different. The maize sales have been slow, and much of what has been sold has not been paid. The FRA is a government agency that buys most of the maize from the small farmers and stores it, then sells to the millers over the year. Its job is to maintain food security. But it seems some of their storage facilities were caught in the rain too.

Farmers are very frustrated. They count on that money to pay school fees and meet their other financial obligations. Often marketing middle men take gross advantage of this and buy maize at much lower prices. Those that refuse to deal with the middle man are caught waiting for the government to pay. Some never get their money.

By now, farmers should have bought into the subsidized fertilizer programs, on which they depend to put in their next crop. Those that pay late receive their products late (hybrid seeds and fertilizer), which means planting late which means a much reduced crop. And so the cycle continues.

There are repercussions for our own small farmer project in the Mpongwe area. On October 11, Jessy emails me: “We have started moving (to collect loans money)… but our only worry is that this year we will give the money late to the farms.”

He knows how important it is to be on time – with payments into the subsidized fertilizer program, to begin planting. The whole thing is immensely frustrating.

Boet Pretorius teaches a group of farmers to make compost at a Foundations for Farming course at Masaiti, Zambia

And shows how important it is to decrease reliance on government programs. A government that is always short money is not a safe bet. There are many projects in Zambia to help farmers decrease the use of commercial fertilizer – conservation farming using manure or compost is one. Another one is planting the Musangu tree. The Conservation Farming Unit research center has been promoting the planting of this very unique tree for many years. Their research plot prominently placed along the main highway to Lusaka shows the fantastic effects of this tree on soil fertilization. Here is a link to that information:

But all the research in the world does no good if it doesn’t reach the farmers, or if the farmers don’t adopt it. That’s what we try to facilitate whenever we are in Zambia, or even when we’re not.

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