THE government's decision to change the process for awarding contracts to suppliers of inputs to the agricultural subsidy programme is highly welcome and was long overdue. Concerns have been raised over the manner in which contracts were being awarded for the supply of fertilisers under the government input subsidy programme, now called the Farmer Input Support Programme. Not too long ago, we observed in an editorial comment that the Farmer Input Support Programme needed a complete overhaul.

Changes need to be made at every level of the Farmer Input Support Programme, from the tender-bidding stage to the supply of the inputs. It cannot be denied that the supply of inputs to the Farmer Input Support Programme was plagued by high levels of corruption.

A lot of money is pumped into the programme but very little benefit trickles down to the intended beneficiaries of the Farmer Input Support Programme. The government has lost huge sums of money in the process. This must stop.

It is a well-known fact that some of the suppliers of the fertilisers to the government do not have what is required to warrant the award of those contracts. Some have even been sourcing fertiliser from our own Nitrogen Chemicals of Zambia, which has been neglected for many, many years.

If these suppliers can get some of the fertiliser from Nitrogen Chemicals of Zambia to supply to the government, then why can't our government source it directly from Nitrogen Chemicals of Zambia? Who is benefiting from all this? These are legitimate questions seeking honest answers.

The efforts being made by Emmanuel Chenda, the Minister of Agriculture, to bring sanity to the Farmer Input Support Programme deserve the support of all of us.

There's urgent need to revamp Nitrogen Chemicals of Zambia. All that this state-owned company needs is some K20 billion.

If the government can spend over K700 billion on the Farmer Input Programme, what is so difficult about allocating K20 billion to a plant that can sort out most of our country's fertiliser needs? Allocation of money to the Nitrogen Chemicals of Zambia has been done before. But it was not enough. What is needed is a properly coordinated plan for its revival.

A lot of attention needs to be paid to the efficient, effective and orderly production of local farming inputs. As long as the Nitrogen Chemicals of Zambia is left in its current state, we will continue to face numerous problems in the supply of affordable farming inputs that are needed to make agriculture a profitable and viable undertaking for the vulnerable.

There is also need to embrace the voucher system in input supply.

This, if properly implemented and monitored, will allow only those who cannot afford to buy inputs to access subsidised fertilisers and seed. The efforts being made by Emmanuel to root out corruption and improve the performance of the agriculture sector need the support of all technocrats in the Ministry of Agriculture.

There is urgent and serious need for us to pay a lot of attention to our agriculture sector. Agriculture remains a critical component for economic development and food security in our country today.

Agriculture is the mainstay of the majority rural people. It is also a critical component for poverty reduction. We will not be able to reduce poverty without increasing agricultural production, without paying special attention to this very important sector.

Almost a million rural farmers with little or no access to financing are in dire need of support. These are the people that need to be targeted for the subsidy programme that has for many years benefited those who have the muscle to finance their own crop production.

We know that the current government has the zeal and commitment to turn agriculture around and make it viable; to turn the country into the region's food basket.

There's need for a renewed focus on agriculture to rid it of corruption and inefficiency. Despite massive increases in the expenditure on the fertiliser support programme, agriculture productivity has not increased.

In fact, during the past five years, the rate of growth of agriculture has been less than one per cent per year and was even negative in some of those years. These are issues that need to be critically examined or analysed.

Corruption has killed, is killing our agriculture and our farmers. Year in, year out, our poor farmers in rural areas have complained about not receiving subsidised inputs under the Farmer Input Support Programme.

The question is: if our vulnerable farmers who are the intended beneficiaries of the subsidised inputs do not receive the support, then who has been receiving these fertilisers and seeds? We are aware of numerous cases of these subsidised fertilisers being sold illegally at exorbitant prices.

Let's stump out corruption in our agriculture sector and serve our farming communities, our rural poor.