Dundumwezi UPND member of parliament Edgar Sing’ombe has argued that the hunger situation in South Province has not only been caused by drought and climate change but by the government’s poor planning.

And Southern Province Agriculture Coordinating Officer (PACO) Paul Nyambe says it is important for South Province to wake up and diversify from maize, warning that the region’s grain production has dwindled in the last ten to fifteen years.

But CSPR acting board chairperson Partner Siabutuba has argued that there is lack of political will from the leaders to address challenges in the agriculture sector.

Meanwhile, former minister in the MMD government Ackson Sejani says people cannot be forced to quit eating nsima suddenly because it is a cultural meal, urging that the process of diversifying from maize must be smooth and gradual.

The four were speaking at a Public Discussion Forum organised by News Diggers, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), and Civil Society for Poverty Reduction (CSPR), among other cooperating partners in Choma, Friday .

“If everything was done in good time, I think we were not going to be talking about this hunger today. And the reason they are giving is that it is because there was no rain. Yes to some extent but to some degree, this hunger is injected in us because the challenge that most farmers went through was the non-delivery of [farming] inputs on time,” said Sing’ombe. “Secondly, I thought that this hunger situation could have made government do something positive. Like in Dundumwezi, most of the agriculture extension officers have run away. All of them are either in Kalomo or Choma from two years ago. How do you come out of poverty if, as government, you allow people who were trained to live in the rural areas to improve agriculture run away to the urban areas?”

Meanwhile, Sejani said government should drive the agriculture diversification process if it is to be actualised.

“They say what you eat is part of your culture, therefore you cannot tell people to immediately stop eating nsima. It is part of our culture, so this process must come gradually. This is not going to be a one day job. We must gradually wean ourselves off by systematic programmes to popularise these other crops that we are going to. You can’t decree [to say] ‘from today, stop eating maize,’ you will not manage it. We must do it systematically. Then you will see that people are gradually weaning themselves off from this. Otherwise, we are going to be trapped in this poverty,” said Sajeni.

“We now must be talking about how we are going to implement diversification. If we must diversify away from maize, who is going to drive this process? Is it GRZ? Is it the private sector? How much is the budget? These are big issues that cannot be handled by the private sector. My argument is that government must never run away from this. It still must be the responsibility of government to drive this process to ensure that our farmers diversify meaningfully and effectively because the enabling environment can only be created by the government. Otherwise, 20 years from now, we will still be talking about the need to diversity.”

And Nyambe observed that the production of maize in Southern Province had dwindled in the last 10 to 15 years.

“I want to tell you that this province has been traditionally an agriculture province. We feed this country, we feed this sub-region. But unfortunately, this effort and this title is going down. As a province, our target is that in one year, we can produce somewhere about 750, 000 metric tonnes of maize. But we last did that in 2010/2011 [farming season]. Our belief is that if maize production goes up, the rest of the other crops will [equally] go up but it is not true. We have more than 1.2 million cattle here, we have more than 3, 000, 000 goats in the province now, less than 600, 000 pigs, and a million chickens,” Nyambe said.

And responding to a question from Angela Phiri who wanted to find out why government was not giving farmers the crop market prices before the start of a season to help them decide what to cultivate, Nyambe said it was not feasible because government was not the only buyer.

Speaking at the same event, Siabutuba said there was lack of political will from the leaders to address challenges in the agriculture sector.

“It is one thing to talk about agriculture diversification and it is indeed another thing to show commensurate efforts in terms of financial commitment. Today, we are in a situation where the national budget towards agriculture has continued to reduce and sectors like military and combating crime have taken the other share of the social and economic sector, which is very sad. And I think key elements that can stimulate agriculture diversification is market availability. Farmers should be given an opportunity to be able to sell the crops they produce as much as they need them for consumption. In the absence of guaranteed market, it is very difficult for anyone to convince farmers to grow a crop whose market is not guaranteed. And today, farmers are still struggling to sell even the maize they have produced,” he observed.

Siabutuba added that Zambia was one of the countries with best policies but lacked political will to implement them.

“As CSPR, we think that we have an opportunity for those that want to listen to what we are saying today to take advantage of the things that we are discussing here so that they can take them forward. Unfortunately, we have people that don’t listen. We have leaders who don’t listen. They have ears but they don’t want to listen,” said Siabutuba. “They don’t want to accept that poverty is high, hunger today is high and unbearable but they have refused to accept that. So this is a country where leaders have continued living in denial of their own situation. So unless our leaders begin to be very realistic, put their pride in the bag, lock it and then begin to face things as they are, we shall not move.”

Gracing the event, Choma Mayor Javen Simoloka said the hunger situation in the province was deadly.

“I think the FRA maize should have been available and accessible to every citizen of Zambia and at a correct cost. The argument that the maize has been stored and fumigated is a commercial argument. That maize should have been half its cost because of the situation we are faced with. The hunger situation in Southern Province is real, it is deadly,” said Sikoloka.

According to a report by Hivos dubbed “Beyond maize: Exploring agricultural diversification in Zambia from different perspectives”, which was disseminated during the discussion forum, research conducted in about 240 households showed that farmers were restricted to maize farming only.

The report also highlighted that there was less information on diversification given to farmers by agriculture extension service officers.