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Agricultural input subsidies, perhaps
19 January 2010

Acknowledgements: FANRPAN acknowledges IRIN News as the source of this article


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Swaziland's government is planning to subsidize agricultural inputs to boost food production in the consistently food insecure country.  The proposal, however, has yet to be passed by Cabinet and would then require the establishment of a financing scheme for the agricultural inputs ahead of the main planting period that begins in October.

In the past decade, up to two thirds of the one million population have relied on donor food assistance and although the food shortages were largely blamed on erratic rainfall, the return of good rains in 2009, did little to improve the country's food security.

"The reason why more food isn't produced is poverty. Farmers did not have money to buy seeds and fertilizer. Those who did not have teams of oxen were hard-pressed to rent government tractors. We had no budget to assist them," Sipho Simelane, Senior Agriculture Officer at the Ministry of Agriculture, told IRIN.

The plan to introduce subsidies comes on the back of Malawi's bumper 2009 maize harvest of 3.66 million tons that was attributed to good rains and the success of an agricultural subsidy programme targeting poor smallholder farmers.  Simelane said the inputs initiative could add 42,000 metric tons to the national food supply and also serve as a vehicle to alleviate poverty.

Wilson Sikhondze, of the agricultural ministry, told IRIN the most recent harvest (2008-2009) produced about 71,000 tons of maize. However, during the 2007-2008 drought year, 83,000 tons of maize was harvested and is seen as an indication that availability of agricultural inputs, rather than erratic rainfall impacted more severely on production.

Swaziland's annual national maize requirement is about 140,000 tons.   "This would go a long way to alleviate the shortages. Farmers will be obliged to sell surpluses to the National Maize Board. They'll be paid," Simelane said.

It is expected the subsidy programme would be more discretionary to reduce possibilities of fraud and increase food production successes, as farmers would be required to pay for one-third of the cost of the inputs.

 "We will be targeting 21,000 farmers in areas where there is the greatest potential for high yields. We are focusing on maize production. Each farmer is required to have at least one hectare of land which currently produces at least two metric tons of maize. The goal is to increase yields to at least four metric tones of maize per hectare," Simelane said.   "Swaziland has four agri-climatic zones, and the initiative is targeted at the northern high veld and the high middle-veld where there is adequate rainfall to sustain crops if farmers get the inputs they need," he said.

The middleveld and low veld has adequate soil, but lacks sufficient water resources and relies solely on rain fall.

If implemented and should it improve food production there will be other challenges to overcome, including a revamped agricultural distribution infrastructure, Simelane said.   "We need to look at national storage facilities. They are run by the National Maize Board (NMC, whose main storage facility is at the Matsapha Industrial Estate in the center of the country), where farmers sell their crops. As part of government's decentralization policy, we have facilities built in all four provinces of the country, with more planned," he said.

The donor dependent country that is ruled by sub-Sahara's last absolute monarch, King Mswati III, already has agricultural input subsidy programs and has served to highlight some of the problems the government initiative may encounter.  "We have been providing inputs in years past, but for government to do this is new," Khanyisile Mabuza, Assistant Country Representative for the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), told IRIN.

The Swaziland offices of the UN's World Food Programme (WFP), the FAO and the community-based poverty-eradication nongovernmental organisation World Vision, which partners the UN agencies, has been moving away from food distribution toward programmes self-sufficient food production for a few years.  The majority of farmers who are recipients of subsidy programmes reside on communal Swazi Nation Land, where 80 percent of the population lives under the control of palace appointed chiefs.

"When we supplied inputs it was during emergency situations. We set up trade fairs, and farmers came to learn about the different crops. We then supplied seeds for sorghum, beans or maize. But it set up expectations," Mabuza said.  "Farmers felt they would always be supplied. They receive packages containing R600 (US$81) worth of inputs, but they would sell the contents for R400 (US$54) and felt it was their right to do so. Then they started making demands like they wanted tractors," she said.

Mabuza said government's approach to target farmers was a good one. "It is good that government will manage its input initiative, and that farmers will contribute and not just receive. To be a success farmers must have a sense of ownership," she said.

World Vision has undertaken a survey for government and identified 55,000 small-scale farmers as possible candidates for subsidies. "We want farmers who are passionate about food production, who will work," Russell Dlamini, Programme Director for World Vision, told IRIN.

However, monetary concerns may weigh heavily on the ability of the government to finance the subsidy programme. The renogiation of Swaziland's share of regional custom duties derived from its membership of the Southern African Customs Union has seen revenue cut by R4 billion (US$541 million).  According to some estimates the custom's revenue provided government with about 60 percent of it budget.

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