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WORLD FOOD DAY: Zambia's Women Farmers Demand Policy Changes

Danstan Kaunda

LUSAKA, Oct 15 2008 (IPS) - Zambia's tens of thousands of peasant farmers are crucial to the country's food security, yet they have little voice in agricultural policy. Cecilia Violet Makota is one of the rare exceptions.

Makota leads 200 other women in a farmers' association called the Zambia Women in Agriculture (ZWA). The association of women peasant farmers is working to build better transportation and marketing systems for agriculture. The association gathers agriculture produce from its members in districts and seeks out buyers.

ZWA is also training its members to adopt modern and sustainable farming methods that conserve the soil and water by using mulch to minimise erosion and improve growing conditions for the plants.

The association is also encouraging its members to grow crops that can adapt to changing weather seasons such as high rainfall and low rainfall seasons.

They have also engaged the private sector to improve rural incomes. "Expanding private sector involvement in rural agriculture marketing and supply activities is a long-term solution to food security in this country," Makota said.

According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) more than 65 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa population is engaged in agriculture activities. The sector generates more than a quarter of Southern Africa's gross domestic product.

The FAO also estimates that more than 30 million Africans are currently in need of international food aid. For Zambia, over 2.3 million people are in need of food aid. This is equivalent to 174,383 metric tonnes of food.

Jonathan Chizuni, from Zambia's Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries said in a statement in May this year at a farmers congress that, "Droughts and floods in the country have brought severe food insecurity to most households."

Agricultural experts say food insecurity in Zambia is largely due to low farm productivity, limited access to agricultural services by peasant farmers and poor government policies on the sector. ZWA's Makota says it is the abolition of farm subsidies and the liberalisation of agriculture marketing schemes by government that have weakened the agriculture sector in the country.

"Lack of a guaranteed market and higher input costs sometimes discourages our members," Makota told IPS in an interview, "But to enable farmers to produce more and to have food security in this country, government should provide access to appropriate seeds, market outlets, storage and processing facilities."

The transformation of Zambian government in 1991, from one political party state-run to multi-party system, came with a lot of changes. In the agriculture sector, government subsidies for agriculture were abandoned, ending the provision of seeds and fertiliser to small farmers. Government said the programme was too expensive to be continued.

This resulted in a decline in production of the main staple, maize meal, from just over one million tonnes of maize meal in 1991 to just 486,000 tonnes in 1992, according to the government's agricultural marketing information centre.

This quickly translated into a significant increase in food prices.

The Zambian National Farmers Union (ZNFU) says rebuilding rural supply networks and marketing systems will play a major role in the eradication of poverty and ensure food security in the country.

"It was easy to implement the agriculture subsidies policy by government when the economy of the country was strong," ZNFU communication officer Kunda Mwale recalls. "However, as the economy grew weaker and weaker, it became increasingly difficult for government to maintain the policy."

Today, food insecurity and malnutrition characterise both rural areas and high-density locations in urban areas in Zambia.

The Programme Against Malnutrition (PAM), a local agro-based non-governmental agency, says household food insecurity situation has worsened in the last ten years.

PAM is implementing a programme called the Food Security Pack for vulnerable farming households in the country who have been unable to afford seed and fertiliser since subsidies were withdrawn.

They procure seeds centrally from seed suppliers and distribute to the selected vulnerable farm households like the female headed, orphans and the disabled households.

In the last six years, the PAM's food security programme has assisted over 490,000 vulnerable households in the country to produce enough food for their household consumption.

Under this programme the agency is also providing among other things like agriculture trainings and marketing entrepreneurship to small farmers. They have targeted over 22,500 peasant farmers this season.

Paul Kapotwe, PAM executive director, says the ultimate objective of the programme is for these vulnerable households to increase their agriculture productivity so as to escape poverty.

"To achieve this high level of productivity, households needs to have a diversified crop and alternative livelihood integrated system that provides all year round income," Kapotwe said in an interview.

"It is hoped that these policies will result in an improvement in food security at both national and household levels."

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