Sunday, March 13, 2011
Subsidizing the rich
By The Post
Sun 13 Mar. 2011, 04:00 CAT
The government subsidised Farmer Input Support Programme has lamentably failed in its fundamentals and practice for most of its existence since introduction over eight years ago.
This initiative which is intended to provide subsidized farming inputs to our poor and vulnerable farmers has turned into a political tool for those in control of government resources.
It cannot be denied that agriculture is a vital component in our country’s economic development. Agriculture plays a very critical role in reducing rural poverty and bridging the gap of underdevelopment among the rural dwellers. Although Zambia has a relatively high urban population, almost half of it today relies on agriculture for its livelihood.
The provision of inputs at a subsided fee to our poor and vulnerable farmers, re-introduced by Levy Mwanawasa, has undoubtedly contributed to improving the maize production after the sector was run down by the reckless economic policies of extreme liberalisation toiled under the destructive 10-year rule of Frederick Chiluba.
But there is no doubt that this Farmer Input Support Programme which is supposed to be an economic activity has sadly been abused or mismanaged by politicians and those seeking patronage and turned into a political tool for their election campaigns, and in some cases a vehicle for stealing public funds.
The avenue of sourcing this government-subsidised fertiliser and reaching it to the intended farmer is faced with a lot of abuse, corruption and leakages. And in this election year things will be worse – it will be nothing but a campaign tool; fertiliser bought with taxpayers’ money will be exchanged for votes.
It’s not too long ago when this government of Rupiah Banda publicly announced that all the intended farmers were to get the fertiliser for this farming season way before they start their farming activities. However, this is contrary to what is happening on the ground. Widespread reports in most productive parts of our country indicate that several farmers have not received all the inputs for this season.
Most of our poor and vulnerable farmers have not received top dressing fertiliser. From the little agricultural knowledge we have, we know that top dressing fertiliser is what gives farmers the cob. But in the absence of this, we wonder how our people will produce a bumper harvest which Rupiah and those that surround him have already started preaching about.
Rupiah and his minions must not forget that issues of agriculture are not to be trivialised. We say this because agriculture is at the centre of our people’s livelihood and meets our country’s food needs.
It is said that you may fool some people some time but you cannot fool all the people all the time. And this is exactly what Rupiah and those that surround him must bear in mind. Using the distribution of subsidised fertiliser as their campaign tool will not do. Cheap propaganda and politicking on their part will not help solve the problems that many of our people in rural areas face; it will not put food on the table for the majority poor of our people.
The fertiliser subsidy programme, then Fertiliser Support Programme, was launched in 2002 to enable about 150,000 small-scale farmers to access fertiliser at half price. The number of beneficiaries was later raised to 200,000 and the subsidy increased to cover 75 per cent of the cost of fertiliser. The number has further risen to cover about 500,000 small-scale farmers across the country. This, however, is not serving the purpose. We know very well that most of our poor farmers find it very difficult to access these subsidised inputs. Most of it finds its way onto the black market, disadvantaging the poorest of our people.
It cannot be denied that small-scale farmers play an important role in both Zambia’s agricultural output and the nation’s food security. Although there are no official figures of the number of small-scale farmers, they are estimated at about one million. Even those who have only a small piece of land are expected to provide sustenance not just to their immediate families, but also extended ones. The biggest problem with the Farmer Input Support Programme seems to be not in the concept but the execution. The way the Farmer Input Support Programme is being administered using all sorts of co-operatives across the country means that the system is open to abuse and inputs often do not reach the intended beneficiaries or are delivered late, thereby delaying planting. The whole system is tainted with corruption, right from the procurement of the inputs by those companies selected to execute the purchasing process to the delivery of the products to our farmers through the mushrooming co-operatives. We know that many of these bogus co-operatives then sell the inputs at full price to commercial farmers and sometimes export them outside the country. As long as this government does not change the operational framework and policy of this subsidy programme without completely disrupting this support to small-scale farmers, the initiative will still be prone to massive abuse and corruption.
This government also needs to seriously review the awarding of contracts to suppliers of the farming inputs under the Farmer Input Support Programme. In a study of fertiliser subsidies and sustainable growth in Malawi, Zambia and Kenya, researchers assert that if subsidy programmes are implemented, they should be designed in ways that involve the full range of private importers, wholesalers and retailers. The researchers noted that, “providing tenders to two or three firms can entrench their position in the market, cause other firms to cease making investments in the system or drop out altogether, leading to a more concentrated input marketing system and restricted competition when the input subsidy programme comes to an end”.
Indeed, support to small farmers is vital if poverty-reducing goals outlined in the Sixth National Development Plan are to be met. Without supporting them, few poor farmers would have access to fertiliser while Zambia’s overall maize output could drop significantly because small farmers are a major contributor to national maize production.
But the question is how to ensure more of our poor and vulnerable farmers benefit from the programme. Looking at less corruptible alternatives like a voucher system is one option as suggested by a number of agriculturalists. But since this government sees the current system as a useful political instrument, it will be difficult for it to make any meaningful changes to the programme for the benefit of our poor and vulnerable farmers.