Friday, 17 April 2009

THE BUSINESS OF MAIZE

By Gershom Ndhlovu

 

Maize in Zambia grows all over the place, it is a wonder that mealie meal, its by-product, is for most part of the year in short supply, and when available, it is out of reach of the majority.

Go to Mufumbwe, M’kushi, Lundazi, Kalomo, Masaiti, Chongwe, Mpika and indeed any other place, maize grows on big and heavily mechanised farms, on small patches of land where people toil with hoes and other basic implements as well as in the backyard of houses right in Kabulonga in Lusaka, Riverside in Kitwe and Highridge in Kabwe.

For those who are lucky to live near streams and rivers, maize grows all the year round in madimba alongside vegetables such as rape, cabbage and tomatoes.

What is surprising, if not shocking, is the fact that the Zambian government in particular and the people in general have not taken the growing of maize for what it is—an important crop that can earn them money not only on the local market but also across borders.

Whatever the case, there is a market for maize, if not locally, at least in neighbouring Congo DR where commercial agriculture will not normalise very soon if the political situation especially in the east of the country where there has been constant fighting for the last 12 years or so, is anything to go by.

There is equally growing demand for maize in Zimbabwe where agriculture is currently in a chaotic state with the on-going farm repossessions from white land owners which has negatively impacted on maize production.

With an extra incentive to maize growers, what is required is a bit more organisation in the manner grain is exported to neighbouring countries rather than in the haphazard manner it is done with every Jim and Jack just waking up in the morning and deciding to run across the border with a bag or two of maize.

For peasant farmers who have historically produced the bulk of Zambia’s maize cumulatively, there has simply been no motivation for them in the last 18 years in which they have been subjected, first to promissory notes, and later to the ravages of pestilential briefcase businessman who offer them dambo soap, coarse salt and useless pieces of clothes contemptuously known as salaula, in exchange for bags of maize.

This means of exchange deprives the peasants the opportunity to earn the much needed cash for which they should pay for fertiliser and pay off agro-loans and to also pay for other requirements such as school fees and other little luxuries of life such as radios and battery operated TV sets.

For all its inefficiencies, at least the defunct National Agricultural Marketing Board, (Namboard), reached the remotest parts of the country scouring for the last bag of maize which went on to be stored in its silos in Monze, Lusaka, Kabwe, Ndola and Kitwe.

In came the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) whose task was basically to buy maize from some centres where farmers have to take the commodity to, an onerous task for those living in outlying areas. All it did was to kill the peasant farmers will to cultivate maize. They instead opted to cultivate tobacco and cotton for which they were paid instantly.

Travelling along the Great East Road from Kacholola to Kazimule in Eastern Province between May and August reveals desperate farmers having to spend a long time by the roadside with their bags of chimanga waiting to take it to Lusaka where it might fetch a good price. It is the same for farmers at TBZ in Kaoma, Mufumbwe and indeed other areas. This leaves them open to the briefcase businessmen who then smuggle the maize outside the country where they fetch huge profits.

The idea of the Crop Marketing Agency (CMA) which the late President Levy Mwanawasa wanted to replace the FRA with was probably a good idea which, however, died at conception. May be the CMA was going to bring new impetus to crop, particularly maize, marketing.

On the part of government, identifying that there is a yawning demand for maize in Congo and other food-deficient parts of Africa, government would do a lot by reviving the Nitrogen Chemicals of Zambia (NCZ) in Kafue to supply the equally yawning demand for fertiliser among farmers for maize growing.

Agriculture in general and maize growing in particular could provide the basis for the much talked about economic diversification if government puts in place sound policies, systems as well as infrastructure for that to be achieved.

I hope that as Agriculture Minister General Brian Chituwo announced last week that the country expects a good maize yield is real rather than a flash in the pan and that the country will learn lessons to manage yields and also re-organise its agri-business for the benefit of all involved.

…………

I have just finished reading a book entitled Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart by journalist Tim Butcher who works for the Telegraph and currently based in the Middle East. In the book, he chronicles how he tries to retrace the footsteps of another Telegraph correspondent, Hebert Morton Stanley who followed the River Congo from its source in eastern Congo up to the Atlantic Ocean in the late 19th Century.

The recurrent theme in Butcher’s book is how Congo’s rich resources have brought a curse on the country which, instead of bringing development and uplifting the living standards of the people, they have brought only corruption, war and misery.

This grim outlook is not only typical to the Congo, but it is the general pattern in most African countries where citizens live in wretched and impoverished conditions.

Zambia, rich in mineral and other natural resources, is a perfect example of this. Presently, up to 80 percent of the population live in poverty as they watch the very resources being frittered away to develop distant lands.

Who would know that Lufwanyama is the source of some of the world’s best emeralds when there is nothing to show for it in the area?

3 comments:

MrK said...

I have just finished reading a book entitled Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart by journalist Tim Butcher who works for the Telegraph and currently based in the Middle East. In the book, he chronicles how he tries to retrace the footsteps of another Telegraph correspondent, Hebert Morton Stanley who followed the River Congo from its source in eastern Congo up to the Atlantic Ocean in the late 19th Century.There seems to be a love affair of journalists venturing up rivers, living out the Joseph Conrad experience.

However, they actually never meet Captain Kurtz.

They never ask where the money goes, who owns the concessions, who pays the generals.

They would find out more by sailing up another river - the Thames, where all these metals are actually traded.

MrK said...

Gershom,

There is equally growing demand for maize in Zimbabwe where agriculture is currently in a chaotic state with the on-going farm repossessions from white land owners which has negatively impacted on maize production.How did that happen? Because the 'white farmers' (tobacco planters) didn't grow food themselves.

I would say that it is the currency collapse that made imported goods such a fuel and fertilizer too expensive for farmers to buy, which is the culprit.

norman chipakupaku said...

The biggest problem in Zambia is that maize has been turned into a political crop instead of it being a commercial crop. From the time of UNIP which supported farmers through Zambia Co-operative Federation and NAMBOARD, the biggest problem has been the idea of subsidising both production and consumption.

The subsidy to the producers has meant being in fertilisers and seeds each year. Small scale farmers that produce of 70% of Zambia's crop have never graduated from being small because of subsidies. Hence they have not found profitable to invest in the production of maize.

After 1991, the privatisation made it even difficult as the subsidies were withdrawn and the marketing left to the middlemen.

Zambian farmers are hence receiving very expensive inputs but have failed to increase their productivity. South African farmers are able to produce 7 tons per ha compared to the 1.5- 2 tons per ha produced by small scale Zambian farmers. Hence our cost of production our unit cost tends to be high.

Finally, GRZ has to keep the price of mealie-meal low to be assured of the votes in urban areas like Lusaka and CB. GRZ has spend millions of Kwacha subsidising milers to try and keep the prices of mealie-meal low. FRA is making huge losses, transporters are making money and farmers continue to be poor as the have to depend on GRZ.

Zambian small scale farmers are not growing maize as a business but to keep the Lusaka and CB people happy. Hence farmers or rural fork will continue to be poor.

The cost of meal melis-meal is also very high because of double transportation of maize. Maize has to be transported from Chipata to Lusaka for milling and then transported back to Chipata as mealie-meal and stock feed. Hence the high cost of all the mealie- meal produced in Zambia. It works out cheaper to import mealie-meal from Brazil or South Africa. As for the farmers, there is need to move away from maize that depends on fertiliser to organic farming and the need to diversify to cash crops but not tobacco.