THE recent Government decision to reduce the price of mealie meal has been received with mixed reaction, this is understandable.
The responses have ranged from the downright dismissive to the Millers Association which has now called on the Government to subsidize maize in order to maintain low maize meal prices, and herein lies the problem.
Maize is a political crop because of its centrality as a staple. More money and resources are expended on maize than any other crop including those that would earn the country more income if marketed at the global level.
Already the Minister of agriculture has been forced to allow an import of wheat because of the unnecessary deficit that we are facing. This country need not import wheat or any other crop for that matter because we have the land, climate, water and expertise that could produce all the wheat we need.
Sadly only a few commercial farmers are involved in wheat production. The majority of farmers at peasant and medium scale level do not have the equipment and expertise that is required to grow the crop. More importantly not enough money has been availed for extension programmes that will increase the wheat yield.
On the contrary Billion of kwacha are spent every year in input and extension to increase maize acreage and yield.
At the moment, we produce enough maize to feed ourselves with huge surpluses that have been exported to neighboring countries. We have recorded major bumper harvests of more than two million metric tonnes.
Instead of converting this surplus to tangible benefit to the Government or indeed Food Reserve Agency which has been the buyer of last resort, it has struggled to purchase, transport and store these huge surpluses. More often than not most of the maize has been poorly stored resulting in huge losses that have eaten into any benefit that input subsidy has provided under the FISP programme.
Instead of buying for strategic purposes the Food Reserve Agency is serving as the proverbial grain marketing board, thereby nullifying and to a very large extent marginalizing private sector participation. This means that millers are more than willing to bid their time and buy stocks from FRA than extend themselves to purchase from the market directly.
Therefore, year after year, more and more money is employed into an ever increasing harvest of maize which is poorly marketed, stored and eventually sold.
That is why there is a strong case to be made for more money to be spent on diversification to ensure that other crops are produced to make Zambia the bread basket that our natural resources make us considering that we have the largest body of water in the region to produce the widest possible variety of crops.
A good example of diversification is sugar cane production which has been used to assimilate a large number of small scale farmers on out grower schemes that have earned them far much more than maize.
While maize is important, the reality is that more commercial farmers would produce it if the market factors were correct. Very often policies seem directed at the peasant farmers who invariably have a lower per capita output.
If a similar effort was made to diversify, Zambia would not only earn more but would increase food security by availing plant and equipment to more farmers.
This is why the proposal by the Millers Association of Zambia to subsidize maize is not such a good idea. It sounds politically attractive because the majority urban voters are demanding for cheaper maize meal, but the reality is that consumption subsidies rarely promote growth and development.
The country should avoid consumption subsidies at all costs because the beneficiaries tend to be the few that could afford it, while primary maize prices remain suppressed to the disadvantage of poor peasant farmers who must face rising inflation without recourse to any Government cushioning support.
Our appeal to the new Minister of Agriculture’s to call an urgent consultative meeting with all farmers to establish a working relationship that will promote diversity, effective marketing and realistic pricing of produce. Agriculture is a business. Given good incentives there is no reason why our farmers would not rise to the challenge and deliver to the country the widest range of produce from which we would earn more from exports.