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Sunday, 4 January 2009

Insights from Chiefs (Chief Macha)

" are planting uncertified seed because there is no one to offer technical advice....This is manifested in the current shortcomings of the Fertiliser Support Programme (FSP) which is benefiting people who are not farmers but crooks bent on re-selling the subsidised inputs....We do not have agricultural extension officers here to advise on what crops to grow in different types of soils. How can we succeed in farming without technical advice from agricultural experts?....Genuine farmers don’t get seed and fertiliser from the FSP because criminals have found loopholes and are accessing the commodity and reselling at inflated prices, incapacitating actual producers.....Government should come up with deliberate and workable policies that will promote food production. I do not see why this nation should be importing maize when we have the capacity to produce...This year, seed and fertiliser was given to farmers in December when rains started in November. What type of planning is this?”

Chief Macha of Choma wonderfully echoing the findings from the FSRP paper discussed under the post Zambian agriculture, income diversification & rural poverty.... Lack of coordination, ineffective technical infrastructure and the rampant rent seeking of subsidies are just some of the basic problems that the current GRZ policy on agriculture has failed to address.

Update : More reaction to the inputs distribution, with the National Association of Peasant and Small Scale Farmers of Zambia (NAPSFZ) describing this year's inputs distribution exercise as the worst since the fertiliser support programme (FSP) was implemented.

Update : Reaction from the Opposition. The central claim is that government used the FSP as an election gimmick and the whole process was poorly organised which has led to more opportunities for corruption. In addition, they observe that the "MMD government had exacerbated the corruption in the distribution of fertiliser through the inclusion of civil servants and military personnel in the FSP bracket". The inclusion of these groups "defeated the purpose the FSP was created for as civil servants and soldiers had monthly incomes with the capacity to buy off the fertiliser and resale it at blotted prices".


  1. Cho,

    It does indeed appear increasingly certain that the current structure of the FSP is fatally flawed. I still advocate a change of emphasis from price support to sustainable, domestic, organic production. For example, in my area the local government (which is a voluntary but binding coalition of three american "counties") distributes separate collection bins for household garbage and "yard debris", and issues fines to those who use the wrong bins or fail to separate. The debris is collected, composted, and then sold at very low cost to farmers, or chipped and sold to landscapers and orchards in the case of bulkier, woody debris.

    Lately industrial scale vermiculture is taking off, using leafy debris and high density worm populations to achieve flow through rates that are 3-400% faster than more passive traditional methodologies. FSP capital could enable a steady stream of 5/5/5 organic fertilizer at low operating cost within 2 months of installation. Everything about vermiculture is modular and scalable, the only real limit is the supply of leafy debris to feed the earthworms. FSP could locate production in immediate proximity to the source of inputs, which would also be conveniently located near the destination for the outputs, if agricultural byproducts are used as the primary source of leafy debris.

    Abattoirs should be engaged to convert blood and bone meal into fertilizer inputs, and geological surveys should be reviewed with an eye toward useful mineral deposits such as limestone containing calcium carbonates and magnesium carbonates, calcium sulphates (gypsum), and basalt. Soils should be tested for high copper concentrations, as this can exhibit similar reactions in plants as deficiencies of other nutrients, and lead to wasted or overuse of nitrogen fertilizers. There are a lot of efficient ways that FSP funds can be used to support domestic production of farm inputs to fill the demand gap and lower prices. This can be fertilizer support that pays for its own payroll, inputs and maintenance at least, which presumably would provide multiplier effects equivalent to those promised by MFEZs.

  2. Yakima,

    The process is indeed flawed.

    There appears to be two choices in addressing what needs to be done.

    1. Accept that fertiliser inputs are critical, and reform the market. This could be done either by directly investing in ferliser production, a proposal which has been put forward by JCTR and discussed on this blog.

    Another way is to follow the FSRP view that what is needed is to increase a private market for agriculture to emerge. Under this model, FSP as currently specified is a distortion.

    As it turns in that paper FSRP appear to emphasise less on fertiliser anyone, and believe the larger constraints are probably elsewhere

    2. Accept that fertiliser is a constraint within the current model, but develop agriculture methods that counters this.

    I sense you more on (2). The key as you hint is the ability to leverage such a model on an industrial scale.

  3. Cho,

    I am decidedly more on (2), however I am probably even more in agreement with FSRP that increased diversification in and around rural farms is a pre-requisite for lasting poverty reduction. Great wide ranging discussion there too (makes me miss Random's input!), especially on the merits of direct cash aid as opposed to selective subsidies in reducing potential for fraud and maximizing end recipient delivery. I tend to agree, but with some caveats on specific use of targeted subsidies which have delivery potential equivalent to direct cash transfers.

    The important thing for me is that the vast majority of stakeholders on this issue are firmly in category (1), and rather than try and convince millions of people that fertilizer is not the only or perhaps even the biggest hurdle to be overcome, I'll opt for (2). One of the good things about organic fertilizer production is that the bulk of inputs can be produced on site (compost to increase organic matter content for improved moisture/nutrient retention, worm casings from low intensity vermiculture to provide a base for soil amending fertilizer mixtures, cover crops to reduce compaction by heavy rains and defend against weeds, and rotation/permaculture to exploit natural symbiosis between species). For specific crops in specific soils additional inputs may be necessary to prevent soil depletion and maintain competitive yields, however the annual need for such products would be drastically reduced by widespread implementation of soil improving practices.

    The problem is that these industrial fertilizers being imported are often really concentrated stuff, tailored to be rapidly absorbed by plants germinated from seed lines optimized for huge nutrient loads. In biochemical terms this is incredibly wasteful, and perhaps analogous to steroid use or drug addiction for the plants. The runoff is tremendous, especially when soils are left uncovered during heavy rains while cash crops are sprouting in freshly plowed fields. Topsoil and unnaturally concentrated nutrient flows then hit the watershed, and can have massive unintended consequences downstream (e.g. Crown of Thorns Starfish, which produce millions of offspring each, are able to increase their infant survival rate exponentially in Pacific estuaries with high agricultural runoff, the resulting swarms of adults are nearly impossible to kill and eat coral until they die of starvation. Hundreds of kilometers of the Great Barrier Reef alone have already been destroyed. This only happens in parts of the Pacific with high fertilizer runoff.).

    Farmers who have been using such fertilizers probably shouldn't stop completely right away, but rather try to wean themselves by switching practices and obtaining less concentrated organic replacements where possible. It can be hard to explain why half as much fertilizer for half the price isn't better, which is where high-density organic processes can bridge the gap. Production is at an industrial scale, if you are a worm, but in human terms that is still small and manageable. You aren't going to achieve worm population any denser in 500 cubic meters of soil than in 5 cubic meters, the key is to maintain them in an optimal environment. The scale can be entirely dictated by the supply of leaves and other debris. Thus with a one time direct transfer of equipment (and minimal training) from the FSP to the farmer, the entire cost of future fertilization on that farm just went down. Startup time is two months, zero downtime after that (at least until the worms unionize).

    Vermiculture is about as foolproof an activity as can be imagined, incredibly hands-off. Just keep the vat from getting too hot or too cold (not hard, the decomposition process is already generating heat, but keep out of direct sunlight), and keep the worms fed. Screen-mounted "flow through" vats require no turning of compost or sifting of outputs. The overhead is near zero, and an FSP sponsored production programme could churn such systems out very easily. The modular nature is almost complete, with the only appreciable difference I have seen in larger scale operations (Like the one run by the county government here, which is big because it is primarily for disposal of urban "yard debris". The Xmas trees alone used to pose a major annual headache and expense.), is the inclusion of winch systems to drive multiple cutting bars simultaneously. Labour saving, but unnecessary.

    Effective soil testing can help educate and reassure farmers that they are capable of giving their crops exactly what they need and no more. All that runoff is just wasted money. Cover cropping can help maintain insect predator populations where they are most useful during fallow seasons as well as hold soil in place. By bending instead of cutting the stalks of cover crops like rye, the plants die instead of regrowing, thus returning much of the nutrient load in the mature plant back through the surviving roots where it is available to the incoming cash crop.

    Smart fertilization is cheaper fertilization, which frees up resources to address the other binding constraints on development of rural agricultural communities. To me that seems easier than trying to convince everyone that the personal and financial capital they have invested in the concept of fertilizer support to rescue agriculture has been misplaced. The answer to imports that are twice as strong at half the price is to reduce the need for three quarters of the nutrient inputs in the first place.

  4. There is an article on the revamping of the Fertilizer Support Programme. I find it refreshingly straightforward. Although I don't know if the reforms go far enough, it is certainly a change.

    Government to address deficiencies in the FSP
    January 29, 2009


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