Clive Chirwa writes in The Post :
I am always wary of commenting on Clive Chirwa after one reader took unkindly to my assessment of his policy positions. Unfortunately he wants to become our President in 2011, so I have no choice but pay close attention to what he writes or speaks. In the past, he has restricted his musings in The Post to new cars, but with the latest article referenced above he has strayed into important waters. Unfortunately (again), he has presented us another flawed vision. I don't even know where to start.
The first and what people are worried for is the cost of food especially the mealie-meal prices that are just too high for 85 per cent of Zambians who are at the same time seeing other amenities go up in costs. In the short term, let us use our food reserves to cushion out the escalating prices. In the long term, I want us to revisit the mandate of Food Reserve Agency and make it good for Zambia. I am surprised, perhaps astonished, as to FRA being a buyer rather than a producer. The question we must ask ourselves is why the FRA is not investing in producing food. How can you be a food reserve master if you depend on outside countries to supply you with most basic commodities?
If Zambia was Hong Kong or Singapore, I would understand. But we have so much land that is lying idle without being utilised and labour is in abundance. FRA should be a think tank to help the government formulate proper policies on food reserve. I therefore expect the agency to have started farming or sponsoring farming as a strategic move. Why should the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) embark on a four-year food security project in Chama and not FRA? There are just too many unanswered questions on the shoulders of FRA.
Time has come to really assess its books. Based on this analysis and numerous calls by Zambians and institutions in food production, FRA has failed and has let the people of Zambia down. Perhaps it is better to get rid of it and channel the effort through The National Service who are best suited to run this type of agency with utmost discipline.
Clive wants the FRA to take on three roles : food producer, food security and agricultural policy think tank. Failing that he wants the whole thing abolished and replaced by the National Service. I assume he is not really serious about the National Service. In general, I agree that the FRA needs to be reformed, but the proposal outlined is misguided. Before one starts making the FRA bigger, surely the starting point is to ask what is wrong with the FRA?
The idea behind the FRA is to guarantee food security whilst providing the right incentives for smallholder and large producers to emerge in the market. The Government's aim is to encourage a private sector led agriculture industry whilst ensuring that enough food is available in the country. Clive's vision would introduce pervese incentives in the market. A government led agriculture industry has been done before and it has not worked. Now if we all agree with the Government's aim, the question then becomes how best to ensure the FRA achieves its food security goal within a broader and coherent agricultural strategy that contributes towards poverty alleviation - and that is important, we don't just want food in our mouths, we want agriculture to be an engine of economic growth. There are many many areas for reform but a few measures we here are a few areas that we have discussed on this blog in the past (available to Clive for free and any would be contender in 2011) :
First, reforming the FRA especially with respect to how it deals with small scale farmers. The National Association and Small Scale Farmers of Zambia Associate have previously complained that the FRA sets the price too low and thereby discourages small scale farmers from going into maize farming (incidentally Clive's approach would make this even worse - why should individuals farm if government will simply buy from itself?). To make it worse, the FRA apparently rarely pays the farmers on time. The FRA has actually become a negative distortion in its own right, failing to provide the level of certainty in revenue streams that farmers desperately need to invest in more maize and other products. The late LPM acknowledged this and promised some reforms, albeit in the wrong direction. Like Clive he was calling for "increased operations" not "better operation". The FRA should be more directly focused on food security, rather than large significant purchases of maize in the market. It might also be good if some food purchases where done through the ZAMACE rather than directly with farmers to reduce price distortions - see Exchanging towards agricultural prosperity... Eliminating export restrictions would also be critical. When the incentives are correct and you have a fully functioning FRA you have nothing to fear. More exports more money in the pockets of rural dwellers to drive growth in other areas.
Second, better investment in education and research. We need to create better educational institution that supports farmers. Statistics show that only 3% of graduates in the higher sectors study agriculture. This is both unsustainable and unacceptable. Further investment is needed to encourage more research and development.
Third, physical infrastructure provision, especially transport to improve access to markets. We have previously discussed how this remains a key constraint to the developing of agriculture. The blog Zambian agriculture, income diversification & rural poverty... presents evidence from FSRP which notes : "Our analysis certainly supports the notion that market access is a key determinant of smallholder income-diversification and growth, and, for peripheral regions, improvements in market access require investments in infrastructure. Another blog presented evidence on the abysmal and erratic spending on transport infrastructure -Infrastructure challenges, revist'd..
Fourth, access to credit for smallholder farmers. We have touched on this issue many times and some progress is being made in this area - see the blogs Boosting rural finance.... and A credit management database for farmers... . The idea of a government bank for farmers has now been discarded - see A new Government bank for farmers? revisit'd....
Fifth, improving "market discovery" for small farmers. This blog is littered with many examples were the key constraint facing rural dwellers appear to be knowledge about market opportunities (see There are many good opportunities for income creation in rural areas, but locals are just not aware of the opportunities or they struggle with discovering the profitable markets. We have chronicled many on these opportunities including Chilli, bees and mushrooms. The list is endless. Although private organisations like are doing their bit to unlock the potential that exists, I think our government can play a more proactive role at the local level working with communities to identify their local assets and solving the coordination and "market discovery" failures that exist. Unlocking these opportunities would make our local areas engines of agriculture growth.
Fifth, targeted subsidies to support mechanised farming, coupled with the on-going policy of farming blocks. The potential benefits of more mechanised farming should now be explored. I think now is the time to look to the Brazilians and ask ourselves how they have been able to develop large farms. We have the land just as they do, why can't we put together the same programme in place? We have no money, but the little that exists must be poured into agriculture.
I am sure there are many dimensions I have not mentioned that would embody a coherent agricultural framework. However what all of these have in common is the realisation that for agriculture growth to translate into poverty reduction, the poorest have to be directly involved, not government doing the farming! That requires a fully functioning market with all the correct incentives for private led investment. Not Clive's vision of a marauding FRA that produces and sells food to itself. No that is not a viable vision for Zambian agriculture.