LAST week in our lovely column, we discussed how we can create real jobs in the agricultural sector. I believe I touched on a very critical and important topic that is affecting most Zambians.
I received a couple of emails that clogged my inbox. I had pledged that in the next two years, I was going to facilitate and create ten jobs.
I got responses with resumes surprisingly, even from graduates that are more qualified than me that I should store their credentials and consider them once those jobs are created.
I really felt touched that someone is ready to wait for two years to get a job; this indicates how desperate we, the youths are.
I believe PF won last year's elections because they promised to create jobs besides being associated with the poor. I thought to myself that with the desperate situations in which the youths are, as regards employment, we need to have desperate measures to start creating those jobs as soon as we can.
However, I still stand by my point that agriculture is one of the sectors that can create reliable jobs in the interim besides tourism, construction and the manufacturing industries.
Last week on Thursday, we held a consultative meeting to brainstorm on some constraints that smallholder farmers face in production of various commodities.
I was taken aback by some of the issues that came out of that meeting and I still can't believe that a country like Zambia, which literally depends on mining and agriculture has such challenges in the main sectors.
To be specific, we were discussing the production and management of groundnuts and soyabean value chains.
It's not a secret that Eastern Province is the major producer of groundnuts in the country. The varieties that are mostly grown are MGV4, MGV5, Chishango and Chalimbana, but among these varieties how many of them are commercially produced and sold by the six major seed companies that we have in Zambia? None of them commercially produce the seed and the farmers have been recycling the seed for ages.
One would argue that groundnut seeds are not like maize seed which you have to buy hybrid seed every year. However, is this recycled seed treated with fungicides such as Gaucho and others to prevent prevalence of diseases? Not at all! We are talking about diversifying our agricultural production from maize to other crops when we don't even know where to find seed. We need to seriously think about investing in seed multiplication for other commercial crops like groundnuts and sunflower.
Someone may be surprised to learn that we did not have soyabean seed in 2011/12 growing season. Soyabean was a hot cake and many farmers grew it using grain. I am afraid to state that we might be falling in the same trap this season.
I have been to the major seed suppliers' depots in the province and never have I found a bag of soyabeans in their warehouses. We need to look at the affordability of seed both in terms of pack sizes and the cost.
Maize which has received a lot of attention has pack sizes ranging from 1kg up to 50kg. I don't think the commercial seed suppliers package it in 1kg to sell to Chimsoro Farms or Mpongwe Farms; the target is the smallholder producer in Nyimba, Shang'ombo, Mpika and many others.
The commercial rate of planting one hectare for a lot of maize varieties is 20 to 25kg. The commercial rate for planting of soyabeans is around 80 to 110kg per hectare. The smallest pack size for soyabeans is 25kg which can plant a Lima, while to plant a Lima with maize, one needs about 5kg seed.
Why are the seed companies then not packaging soyabean seed in smaller packs as well to cater for the resource poor farmers that wants to plant less than a hectare? We cannot run away from the fact that 70 per cent of the farmers in Zambia fall in the smallholder bracket.
These same farmers produce more than 80 per cent of the maize that is consumed and traded in Zambia; then why do we want to continue segregating them from the production of commercial crops like soyabeans?
It is not a secret that smallholder farmers were not producing soyabeans because they did not have a market where to sell their produce, now that processors want it; they are ready to come on board.
The input suppliers are a letdown because most of them have products packaged for commercial farmers. Smallholder farmers are a large market for agro inputs.
We have companies like Plant Agri-Chem that has thrived on smallholder farmers and grown through thoughtful segregation and targeting of smallholder farmers. Can we package the products, especially inputs for soyabeans, groundnuts and sunflower to target this market segment if our job creation is anything to go-by?
If we keep marginalising this segment of farmers in terms of commercialisation/diversification, then we are dead and better be buried.
I fail to comprehend as to how we strongly promote small enterprises development (SMEs) for economic development in other sectors like trade and commerce, and we don't want to do the same with agricultural input supply.
With the smallholder farmers, labour is the biggest cost and it contributes to more than 60 per cent of their costs. As soon as we introduce them to modern technologies such as the use of herbicides, they will cut their labour costs by over 30 per cent and improve their efficiency.
Please let's rightly package the products for the smallholder farmers according to how they wish them to be. It being extension, inputs, trainings and so forth.
I hope the Finance minister will take this into consideration as he presents the first PF Budget next week, although the challenge lies with the private seed companies to come on board.