THE agricultural sector in the country is facing enormous challenges and endless problems, re-elected Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU) president Jervis Zimba has said.

And Zimba has accused finance minister Situmbeko Musokotwane and his ministry of Agriculture Counterpart Brian Chituwo of lacking commitment towards the establishment of the private public partnership (PPP) marketing institution as directed by President Rupiah Banda last June.

Meanwhile, President Banda has acknowledged that the government-driven agricultural irrigation programme has stagnated.

Addressing delegates to the 104th annual congress of ZNFU in Lusaka on Wednesday, Zimba cited lack of open dialogue between the government and industry players, haphazard crop marketing mechanisms, limited access to agriculture input, high production costs influenced by factors such as high energy costs, among other factors, as being behind the problems being faced in the sector.

Zimba said the difficulties and challenges facing farmers in the country every year during the marketing season were well known yet there was no solution in sight.

"…some of the serious challenges and difficulties the agriculture sector and the farmers in particular are going through include access to input," Zimba said. "We would like to urge government to continue with improvements on the programme aimed at enhancing its effectiveness and efficiency particularly in ensuring that only genuine farmers benefit from the programme. It is a well established fact that this programme does not cater for all farmers in Zambia hence subjecting the majority of farmers to high input costs."

ZNFU proposed that input access programme should be restricted as a food security programme while a new and an all inclusive commercially oriented agricultural subsidy programme must be designed to cover all farmers across the board, according Zimba.

Recently, the government changed the Fertiliser Support Programme (FSP) and replaced it with the Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP) to ensure that even non-core farmers like civil servants were captured in the programme.
Zimba also proposed that local farmers be given preferential tariffs on electricity and that the government restructured downwards the cost of fuel in the country to ensure local agricultural production costs were lowered in line with regional trends to achieve competitiveness.

"We therefore demand the creation of the farmers' tariff by Zesco," he said. "This is not a peculiar request because the mines have a similar arrangement where they enjoy separate tariff agreements with Zesco which are lower than rest of electricity consumers…the recent budgetary announcement to increase excise duty on diesel from seven per cent to 10 is adding salt to injury."
And Zimba accused Dr Musokotwane and Dr Chituwo of ignoring the presidential directive for the formation of public private sector driven crop marketing programme.

Zimba said solutions to agricultural marketing problems required adequate political support backed by strong technical competence from both the government and private sector.

"…on June 24, 2009, your Excellency directed the Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Ministry of Finance together with ZNFU to meet and consider a proposal of setting up a private public partnership marketing institution," said Zimba. "We regret to report that the government has not provided leadership to ensure that the proposed marketing institution is established and functional and able to participate in the forthcoming marketing season."
Meanwhile, President Banda said the government still remained committed to ensuring that the irrigations sector was developed to take advantage of the vast water resources in the country.

"I will be the first one to admit that not so much progress has been made in this area irrigation," President Banda said. "However, the issue development in one area I intend to see effectively addressed. Without irrigation, our dream to make Zambia the bread basket of the region will remain a dream."
President Banda said the problems in the agriculture sector had been worsened by not only lack of finance but also high cost of working capital.
He regretted that the country had continued to record a decline in output in key agricultural commodities, making the country lose out in the soaring international prices.

"Government is also aware of the problems affecting some of the major commodities such as coffee, horticultural and other non-traditional exports, leading to a sharp decline in production of these crops," said President Banda. "The decline in production is happening at a time when world prices are becoming more attractive. Financial institutions need to support government efforts to grow the agricultural sector."