SINCE the country's fertilizer subsidy policy was introduced three years ago, the government has decided to overhaul it in order to put in place measures that will ensure low income farmers benefit from the system.
A highly touted system meant to offset the economic burden from small scale farmers, authorities agree, has not been able to significantly achieve its objective, a situation that will in 2014, see it overhauled, following a comprehensive study. In various interviews with 'Sunday News', agriculture experts agree that the current fertilizer subsidy system has not yet benefited the ultimate target of the programme -- the smallholder farmer.
According to the Assistant Director of Agricultural Inputs at the Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Co-operatives, Dr Mshindo Msolla, a two-and-half-year comprehensive study would influence changes in the policy.
Dr Msolla said the issues to be addressed in the new policy framework include; how to improve implementation of the fertilizer subsidy to be handled by the Economic and Social Research Foundation (ESRF), improvement of investments in extension and advisory services on fertilizer-use to be handled by the Ministry of Agriculture and the integrated soil fertility management technologies.
On the other hand, the Research on Poverty Alleviation (REPOA) will examine and document evidence for cost reduction in fertilizer policy. Commenting on the proposed policy, Dr Prosper Ngowi of the University of Mzumbe, argued that for the policy to be meaningful it must help the poor farmers in rural areas-majority of who are women, who cannot afford fertilizers under the current subsidy system. "Social protection must include these elements for low income farmers as well," he said.
Dr Msolla said the research would look at such issues like historical data and how the government has been deploying extension officers to several parts of the country. He said some of the issues affecting low income farmers include; access and fertilizer pricing and lack of information on the availability of various types of fertilizer.
Under the proposed policy, the ministry will revisit the roles of extension officers, review the cost structure of fertilizer and how they arrive at the Dar es Salaam port and delivery to the ultimate users -- farmers in rural areas. According to him, 35 per cent of the cost of fertilizer is accrued from transport costs from the port including delays to reach destination. "In some countries, such farmers are followed up and assisted.
Once you leave this group behind, even through policy, then you will have excluded them from the development process," he said. Dr Msolla explained, however, that fertiliser use in the country was very low at about nine kilogrammes per one hectare while the current annual nutrient depletion rate is estimated at 41 kilogrammes nitrogen, four kilogrammes phosphorous and 31 kilogrammes potassium per hectare.
He said the government was currently working on a National Fertiliser Strategy designed to improve accessibility to and affordability of fertilizer use by reducing procurement and transaction costs, thus, improve the value chain development of both staple and non-staple commodities.
According to him, the strategy also aims at providing incentives to farmers through re-introduction of fertilizer subsidy, establish fertilizer buffer stock, strengthening of agricultural inputs trust fund and review taxes and tariffs on agricultural input. He admitted that there has been a weak agricultural extension system, mainly caused by implementing the Structural Adjustment Plans whereby agricultural extension staff had mostly been affected.
He explained that the government will also conduct studies on evaluation of the voucher system, returns to extension, fertilizer price build-up, the impact of removing VAT on fertilizer and feasibility study on scaling up of local fertilizer production.
The outcome of the studies will affect the next soil health policies of the country with aim to improve productivity, according to him. On farmer's capacity to access markets, government records indicate that it is currently concentrating on opening up one of the most important regions as far as food security is concerned.
For example, Rukwa farmers and regional authorities are concerned about host of challenges including bad roads which prevent farmers from transporting produces to markets. Despite the government embarking on a mission to construct over six major roads connecting the region with three neighbouring regions and introducing over 16 irrigation projects covering more than 2,357 hectares out 31,755 hectares of land suitable for agriculture, farmers were complaining of authorities ignoring feeder roads linking their farms with main roads and finally to markets.
Rukwa farmers were also unhappy with increasing cases of thefts of subsidized agriculture inputs worth billions of shillings recently done by regional and district authorities. Kaengesa is one of region's 397 villages which produce the bulk of maize, making Rukwa one of the country's bread baskets but red tape has been frustrating farmers' efforts to access potential neighbouring countries' markets such as Zambia.
Sumbawanga Rural district's Cooperative Officer, Mwanamtwa Zablon feels that farmers would have easier access markets once the current roads under construction are completed. Poor infrastructure also remains a big challenge to farmers who transport their cereals including maize to NFRA's collection depots.
But there is hope for brighter future due to ongoing road construction projects that will open the region to the rest of the country. But there is hope that the farmers will benefit through access to near and far markets if the construction of six major roads connecting the region complete in three years time as government leaders and experts promised.
Travelling across major roads in the region, which has a road network of 4,983km, currently puts one in confrontation with the major hindrance that has, for many years, been a daily worry for the farmers and stopped them from accessing reliable markets.
This has led to a perpetual failure to improve their lives as surplus produce remains unsold. The situation gets worse during rainy season when farmers can neither transport nor appropriately store farm produce in the few storage facilities in the region.