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Zambia 2017 | AGRICULTURE | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Hon. Dora Siliya, Minister of Agriculture, on sustainable farming, crop diversification, and the potential of cashew nuts.

How is the Ministry working towards a “green revolution” in Zambia?

The country has been talking about diversification for a long time and in September 2016 the president made a deliberate move in parliament when he announced plans for a “green revolution.” In line with this, in 2017 we have seen the budget for agriculture grow by over 158%. To us, diversity does not just mean moving the economy from mining to agriculture, but completely radicalizing the agriculture industry in Zambia. Currently, 70% of Zambia's working population is involved in some sort of agricultural activity, and yet agriculture only accounts for 9% of the country's GDP. My target is to increase this to 20% in the next few years, and we will do this by investing in research and extension services. It is important to make informed decisions about agriculture, both from an economic point and from a technical point of view, such as soil and fertilizer testing. Furthermore, we need to be able to track the income growth of farmers and measure the impact our reforms and energy is having on the sector. We will, therefore, compile a database. The final part is the necessity to dedicate a portion of the government's budget to financing agriculture for at least five years.

What incentives is the Ministry putting in place to boost crop diversification?

Zambia has been monocrop economy for far to long. The majority of farmers in Zambia, close to 2 million agricultural households, grow mostly maize. To encourage crop diversification in 2017 we are supporting 10 crops with a smart subsidy of 75% for the production of orange maize, sorghum, millet, groundnuts, cotton, rice, soybeans, and cassava. Part of that is to also ensure there are market linkages. In the past, the government has only procured maize, but as we encourage the private sector we must provide a market for all the other crops, particularly cassava, which can be used as a food source, as a starch in industry, and for export. One of the real pillars of my ministership is a new communication strategy in terms of transforming the food culture in Zambia. In this country, yellow maize is associated with hardship and poverty, because in the past when the country had tremendous challenges in producing white maize, yellow maize was imported into the country. We have to change that mind-set and to do this we should call upon partners, stakeholders, and NGOs in food-related business to work together to change the mindset of Zambians.

How will the ministry increase Zambia's participation in regional markets?

Our plans for free trade zones, particularly in Kasumbalesa, are coming into focus. The DRC is almost a part of Zambia in terms of food supply, meaning this market is huge, not just for large businesses like Zambeef but also for small farmers in poultry and eggs. We have an agreement with the DRC in regards to illegal trade along the border, which stretches for almost 1,000km and makes it difficult for us to have formal trade. However, following discussions with the Minister of Finance we are debating how best to formalize this so-called “illegal” trade by creating a free trade zone where everyone could be trading in a structured manner and with one currency, the dollar. Many companies have been reluctant to open businesses on that side of the border, because they are concerned about regulations and system frameworks for companies in DRC. With this, we could open up a booming market and considerable opportunities for Zambia.

What are the other main challenges facing the agriculture sector in Zambia?

We have also seen production and productivity affected by a lack of investment in mechanization and irrigation. We cannot even begin to talk about value addition in terms of manufacturing and agribusiness, let alone meeting the demand for export market, if we still face productivity challenges. Zambia has the potential to produce 10 million tons of maize per year, but only cultivates 3 million in a good year. In 2016, the region's food reserves ran out and other countries called on Zambia for support but we could not meet both domestic and regional market demand, and were forced to ban food exports. In the 2017 budget, there is a zero rating mechanization incentive for tractors and spare parts, which is important. If we are going to diversify and increase productivity, we need technology. We also have plans to create about 20 bulk water sites as major irrigation points to support a number of agriculture communities. We intend for this to be the first part of a nationwide water infrastructure of canals and dams, managed by technological innovation, to cushion farmers from bad weather cycles.

In what ways are you planning to revise the FISP program?

I intend to review the FISP in terms of our selection of farmers for the program and how the private sector participates. We have seen the government trying to withdraw from the agriculture sector in terms of input supply and allow the private sector to grow, and we have seen that this approach has not always worked, as many participants have abused the system. There have been cases of agro-dealers colluding on price inputs, or not having the capacity to procure or source enough input to meet the farmers' demand in some areas. Our farmers have to begin to take responsibility and understand that money will not simply fall into their laps. We want them to make money so that the government can make money. This shows the importance of developing a nationwide database through which we are able to track farmers and ensure that the support they are getting from the government is money well spent. We have also had challenges with participating banks, for example some of the E-voucher cards that we provide to farmers were delivered to farmers late in 2016. At the same time, this was only the second year of the E-voucher, and it is normal for there to be initial problems.

What is the potential in Zambia for growing exotic fruits and cashew nuts?

In my constituency, seven years ago I introduced the Citizens Economic Empowerment program, stressing the profitability of cashew nuts. Cashew nuts take seven years to mature, so this year was the first harvest. This illustrates changing attitudes to cultivation of crops in Zambia. Where in the past, the country was seen as one large farm and one crop was applied to it. Now we are taking a closer look at soil patterns. For example, the western province is very sandy, and while maize can grow there, it would be better suited to a drought-tolerant crop, such as cashew nuts. We have therefore embarked on a cashew program with the African Development Bank to support farmers beyond seeds and financing, giving them assistance in terms of infrastructure, agro-processing, and capacity building. Ultimately we intend to encourage the farmers themselves to take ownership. The total amount dedicated to the western province was USD55.2 million. The money is going to 60,000 farmers, of whom 50% have to be women and another third or so have to be young people. Ultimately the project will benefit over 600,000 people in the province. At the current rate, a ton of cashew nuts is the equivalent price to a ton of copper, which illustrates the potential of this crop.