AGRICULTURE is the mainstay of the Zambian economy and can greatly contribute to poverty eradication if well-managed.
The sector contributed more than 21.5 per cent in 2012 to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country which is substantial compared to other sectors of the economy.
The sector is poised to contribute significantly to the country's economic advancement, looking at various interventions and innovations the Government and the stakeholders have been putting in place.
The year 2012 saw major developments taking place in most of the sub-sectors such as maize, cotton, soya-bean and coffee to mention but a few.
Prior to that some farmers were sceptical about whether the Patriotic Front (PF) administration would continue with the Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP) or not.
In going forward and with the efforts of continued growth in the sector, the Government in the 2012 Budget stated it will continue supporting the FISP programme.
Finance Minister Alexander Chikwanda said during the presentation of the Budget that agriculture was the lifeblood for the majority of the people, especially in rural areas where poverty was rife and that its development was not merely an aspiration, but an imperative.
The agriculture sector allocation increased by 37.9 per cent to K1,698.0 billion in 2012 compared to the K1,231.6 billion allocated in 2011.
And KR300.0 million went to the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) for maintaining the national strategic food reserve for the 2011/2012 marketing season.
The Government also announced that it would embark on the diversification of the agriculture sector to include other crop varieties on FISP and thus, K500 billion was also allocated to the reformed FISP by mainstreaming the e-voucher system, to promote crop diversification.
To mitigate the challenges the country faced to offer extension services to farmers, Government recruited 900 additional extension officers last year.
The country continued experiencing wastage of crops, especially maize.
Of the 1.7 million tonnes purchased by the agency in the 2011/2012 marketing season, plus the carry over stock of 436,000 tonnes, about 190,000 tonnes of the maize grain went to waste.
To mitigate the impact the agency embarked on long term storage planning, for the period 2012 to 2017 to build more Silos across the country.
FRA spokesperson, Mwamba Siame says the saturation in holding capacities had necessitated Government to negotiate with its Chinese counterpart to construct additional storage facilities.
The latter gave Zambia a grant of US$ 11.6 million to build sheds with a total capacity of 98,000 tonnes holding capacity in 2008.
During the 2012 marketing season, the price of cotton dropped from K3200 to K1600 with most farmers deciding to burn cotton, while others decided not to harvest cotton which is likely to affect the growth of the cotton sub-sector.
This caused protracted negotiations between the Cotton Association of Zambia (CAZ) and the Zambia Cotton Ginners Association (ZCGA) and only reached the dead lock.
The International Growth Centre (IGC) report said the lack of further value addition to cotton was contributing to the dependence on the international market.
There was need for the cotton sector to feed the local industry like what the sugar sector was doing rather than depending on exports alone.
The report suggested the need for the sector to take advantage of the growing demand of seed cake by the poultry industry.
"There is great potential market locally if well-exploited in that cotton offers a variety of products such as cooking oil which has immense demand on the local market," the report said.
Although the cotton industry supports an estimated 21 per cent of the population, it has not received much support from the Government.
There was need for the Government to consider offering subsidies to the small-scale farmers instead of leaving the ginners to exploit the farmers.
For the first time in five years, the country recorded a surplus in soya-beans which increased from 59,000 metric tonnes to 118,799 metric tonnes.
The sugar sector according to the report by the IGC in 2012 remained monopolistic with Zambia Sugar Company contributing about 93 per cent of the total sugar production share.
Meanwhile, coffee produced in 2012 was 900 metric tonnes and earned more than K18.9 billion despite facing challenges of lack of long term financing as most financial institutions do not give loans on long term basis.
The Zambia Coffee Growers Association (ZCGA) chief executive officer Joseph Taguma says with the current international price fetching an average of US$4,200 per tonne, earnings exceeded K18 billion.
The future outlook of the agriculture sector in 2013 seems blink with the invasion of crop fields by the army worms and the late delivery of inputs such as fertiliser and treated seeds.
But the Government's intervention has helped to rescue most of the crops from being completely ravaged by the army worms.
As an immediate intervention, the Government secured more than 1,500 metric tonnes of maize seed for free distribution to more than 73,500 farmers whose crops where destroyed by army worms.
Government spent more than KR15 million to get seed for distribution to farmers who lost their crops due to army worms.
Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Permanent Secretary Siazongo Siakalenge says the maize seed that has been distributed included early-maturing maize varieties of the 400 to 500 series that took 110 to 130 days to mature.
Dr Siakalenge said being short duration maturing seed varieties, farmers will still manage to produce high food yields this year.
"A total of 1,577 tonnes of maize seed has been secured to replant 78,866 hectares of maize fields damaged by army worms. The seeds have been distributed to 73,593 farmers in 33 districts," Dr Siakalenge said.
He said his ministry distributed seed free of charge to farmers, to enable them replant and avert food insecurity in the country.
"Government has taken this decisive move to distribute free maize seed to affected farmers to enable them grow the staple food so as to safeguard and maintain food security," he said.
This has put hope to farmers who lost hope during the army worms' invasion.
Another challenge which if not well-handled will contribute to low yields in 2013, will be the late distribution of fertilisers under the FISP by the companies contracted by the Government to distribute inputs during the 2012/2013 farming season.
The Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU) was worried that to this day, some farmers in key agricultural producing areas had not received D Compound or basal dressing fertiliser, later on Urea or top dressing fertiliser.
"This is unprecedented in the history of farming in this country in recent times. We are worried that to this day, some farmers in key agricultural producing areas have not received D compound or basal fertiliser, later on Urea or top dressing fertiliser," ZNFU media liaison officer, Kakoma Calvin Kaleyi said.
Mr Kaleyi urged Government to carry out a forensic investigation to ascertain why farmers have not received inputs to date under FISP.
"As ZNFU, we are of the strong position that inputs should be distributed to farmers on time if we are to drive towards being a true food basket of the region and beyond.This development only takes the country's agriculture sector back to several years. It is unacceptable," Mr Kaleyi said.
He said: "As ZNFU, we will be carrying out a crop production survey to factor how much quantities the country will produce for the agricultural season 2012/2013."
Mr Kaleyi said the late delivery of inputs was rueful development and that should never be allowed to be repeated.
He said within a few days inputs would be rendered useless for the 2012/2013 farming season as the period for crop development when these inputs are needed would be way passed.
Agriculture and Livestock Minister Emmanuel Chenda said he was disappointed with the performance of the fertiliser companies and that he had received numerous complaints on the delayed delivery of fertiliser to the farmers.
Mr Chenda said the fertiliser companies should quicken the fertiliser distribution saying it was detrimental to the economy of the country, especially that agriculture was a cornerstone of the economy.
But Nyiombo Investments operations manager Kwazi Dlamini said the company had not delayed and that so far, 90 per cent of the fertiliser had been distributed.
Mr Dlamini said from the eight years the company had participated in the distribution of inputs, this year had been the best.
He said the distribution of top dressing fertiliser would be completed before the end of January, while that of D-compound would be completed by the end of January.
He said in the last three months, the firm had delivered about 100,000 tonnes of fertiliser to various parts of the country.
Mr Dlamini said the challenge Nyiombo Investments faced was that there was a short period from the time the contract was awarded and the time to start delivering the inputs.
He said the distribution of fertiliser was not as easy as some people thought because there were issues of rain, warehouses and transport arrangements.
"Distribution of 80,000 tonnes of fertiliser in two months is a job well-done for us," he said.
On accusations that some farmers received less quantities, he said those were isolated cases which should be pin-pointed so that they could be attended to.
The Government awarded Nyiombo Investments a contract to supply 41,185.50 tonnes of D-Compound and 52,251 tonnes of urea for the 2012/2013 farming season.
What would determine whether or not the country would still record bumper harvests, especially in maize is how the stakeholders have responded to the challenges that have been faced in the agriculture sector to date.