Zambia: El Niño pushes Zambian farmers to question maize habit (Trust)

| January 25, 2016

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Farmers in drought-stricken Zambia are planning to reduce the amount of maize they plant, and switch to beans and other quick-maturing crops that do better in erratic weather.

Sinoya Phiri is one of those worried maize growers. The 42-year-old farms in Katyoka village, about 25 kilometres south of the capital, Lusaka. He says, “I will have to stop growing maize and find other crops to sustain our livelihood because we have had no rains this season.”

Mr. Phiri usually plants his maize at the beginning of the rainy season, between November 15 and 20. The rains normally continue until mid-March, and maize needs 60 to 90 days to mature.

But the rains were entirely absent, except for a single downpour in mid-December. He adds, “Since then, we haven’t had any rains, and if it doesn’t rain in the next week, with this extraordinary heat, I am afraid even the little surviving crop will dry up completely.”

To cope with the unusual conditions, Mr. Phiri has started keeping pigs and chickens. He is also trying out crops like sugar beans and soya beans, which mature more quickly than maize.

Zambia is facing a critical food shortage.

Jacob Nkomoki is the director of the Zambia Meteorological Department. He says the dry spell is caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon, combined with a dry air flow from the southeast. Farmers in southern Zambia have been particularly hard-hit by drought. Many areas received less than 40 millimetres of rainfall between mid-November and early January.

Evelyn Nguleka is the president of the Zambia National Farmers Union. She says farmers are aware of the risks associated with climate change and global weather phenomena such as El Niño. Mrs. Nguleka says farmers also face serious economic challenges. They are paying more for inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, and equipment because of Zambia’s unstable foreign exchange rate. The country is dependent on copper exports, and low copper prices have caused Zambia’s export earnings to dwindle.

Mrs. Nguleka says the weather is making it tougher to earn a good living from maize alone, and she is encouraging farmers to try out new crops such as cowpea. She adds, “I would like to urge my fellow farmers to diversify their production, and carefully select crop varieties which will reach maturity within the remaining wet months.”

The government provides free seed and fertilizer for maize growers. Given Lubinda is Zambia’s Minister of Agriculture and Livestock. He says the government is now including commodities like rice and cotton in its Farmer Input Support Programme, in an effort to ease the impact of climate change on farmers. Minister Lubinda says, “Diversification will ensure that the farmers and the nation as a whole are food- and nutrition-secure, as well as increasing household income.”

Farmers such as Mr. Phiri have already started branching out into different crops and into raising livestock. They are also embracing methods such as conservation agriculture.

But Mr. Phiri warns that, if farmers do not adapt quickly, the country’s food security will be seriously compromised. He says that, in the future, people will need to alter their habit of eating so much maize meal. He explains: “It is becoming unsustainable to grow maize because of the changing weather patterns. I am afraid [that] if we don’t change our farming methods, especially the growing of maize, we will end up as a hungry country.”

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Photo: Farmer Sinoya Phiri shows the dryness of the soil on his land south of Zambia’s capital Lusaka. Credit: Whitney Mulobela