Maize used to relief hunger striken regions in Zambia
Relief maize being offloaded in Lunga district. Photo: Natasha Sakala

Zambian farmers cry for crop diversification to adapt to climate change

Modified rainfall patterns have fleshed out a need to take adaptation measures in the African country's agriculture.
Modified rainfall patterns have fleshed out a need to take adaptation measures in the African country's agriculture.

When food production is embroiled in the politics of the nation, farmers bear the brunt. Often, they remain food insecure after having produced for their nation.

In Zambia, maize has traditionally ensured food security, but the tide is changing, and the cultivation of the staple cereal is facing many challenges. Particularly, since climate change is causing various impacts in the African country. 

Maize has a long history in Zambia, where it’s deeply ingrained in the culture. However, it has become unrealistic to keep the status quo. Mainly rain-dependent, the change in rainfall patterns and the shortening of the wet season negatively affect maize crops.

Climate impacts on maize

Over the years, the country has seen a change in precipitation patterns. While rains used to begin in October, they now start in December. Moreover, the 2018–2019 rainfall season was one of the scarcest in the southern half of Zambia since 1981, according to the Zambia Meteorological Department. This negatively impacted crop production and, consequently, availability.

Farmers have started to migrate to early maturity varieties, instead of local seeds. Early maturity maize varieties require more chemical products to be grown.

Some farmers are now even abandoning maize production in an effort to adapt to pests such as the fall armyworms. The 2020 red locust outbreak hit eight districts across the Western, Central and Southern Provinces. According to the Minister of Agriculture, the plague affected more than 22,000 hectares of land in the named districts.

These efforts, however, are not enough: according to the Zambia Vulnerability Assessment Committee report, acute malnutrition has risen to nearly 6% across Zambia. More than half of the country’s districts registered a significant decline in maize production in 2019.

Woman drawing water in a shallow well, in the drought-hit southern part of Zambia. Photo: Caritas Zambia

The cry of the farmer

Diversifying agricultural production has the potential to increase the availability, affordability and accessibility of diverse and nutritious food. Indeed, it is one of the major contributions the agricultural sector can make to food security and nutrition. In addition, diversifying agriculture would also have a positive impact on income and the creation of more resilient communities.

According to a discussion paper released by Hivos, approximately two-thirds of the country’s total arable area is dedicated to maize cultivation. This shows that the Zambian food system is not delivering enough affordable or nutritious food to the majority of the population.

Meanwhile, farmers state that the government has not embraced diversification. Small-scale farmers, who represent the majority in the country, find this concerning. The workers have welcomed agricultural diversification for years.

Frank Kayula is a farmer and former president of the small-scale farmers union. He lamented that the government has highly politicised the maize crop.

Maize in Zambia determines the country’s food security. This means that if the price of maize meal goes up, the government loses popularity. Hence, the need of the country to always have enough maize in stock.

Indeed, the government buys maize from the farmers through the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) for two purposes: for resale to millers in case of a shortage and for relief in hunger stricken areas.

“The government of Zambia has an interest in maize, that’s why they go in politically. They know that maize is our staple food. That is why, unfortunately, maize has been pushed even among small-scale farmers by provision of an alternative market. We work in such a way that if there is a market [for a product], small-scale farmers will definitely produce [it]. They know that when they produce maize, FRA will come in and buy,” Mr Kayula said in an interview.

According to Kayula, farmers are now looking to invest in activities such as poultry and fish farming among others, in order to avoid losses incurred with maize.

With the export of maize restricted, there is not much of a profitable market for the product as the ready market is the millers and the FRA. Due to the low price offered compared to private buyers, the agency has become unpopular among farmers.

Civil society organisations championing nutrition in the country have expressed concern over government insistence on programs that are inimical to the diversification agenda. Programs such as the Farmer Input Support Program subsidizes maize production inputs and focuses on the crop alone.

Civil Society Scaling up Nutrition (CSO-SUN) Alliance executive director Mathews Mhuru has been instrumental in this fight. He noted that even the relief programmes under the Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit focus on the distribution of maize meal. According to Mhuru, the programmes leave out necessary relief components such as proteins in their packages.

A maize field near Zambia's capital, Lusaka
Maize field in Lusaka’s Chongwe area. Photo: Natasha Sakala

The way forward

Various key player’s, like Hivos, have come on board and promoted alternative crops. Some substitutes are millet and sorghum, which according to research are more resistant to drought than maize according. Despite those efforts, culture doesn’t change overnight, and it seems that the mindset of citizens is rigid towards diversifying their plates from maize meal cake to foods like potatoes or rice.

Various stakeholders have continued to call on the government to ensure that they take deliberate steps to supplement their efforts. In addition, they encourage citizens not to only cultivate but also consume a wider variety of crops that are also of nutritional value to them.

Many discuss and advocate for agricultural diversity. However, it still falls on citizens to source nutritious and easier to cultivate foods.