Brian Moonga | February 7, 2011
Jason Mumbi has been farming for nearly a decade in Kabwe’s Chamuuka area, north of Lusaka. When asked about increasing food prices, he replies, “High food prices are … a challenge for me as a cash crop grower.”
Mr. Mumbi operates a small maize mill as a family business, and is thinking of expanding. But the persistent increases in food prices are the main stumbling block for him. He spends most of the family’s earnings on food and school fees for his three children. Instead of growing more cash crops, he has had to reduce the size of land he cultivates as he cannot afford seed.
He says, “I grow mostly vegetables and I used to use my profits from my mill business towards buying seed and chemicals to help me grow my cash crops. But now it’s becoming difficult. I have reduced my farm from growing on an acre to half the area.”
According to Mr. Mumbi, the high food prices are not beneficial for small-scale farmers. He explains that, despite profiting from the booming demand for vegetables and the increased price of food, he eventually incurs the same high costs. He buys food which is not grown on his farm, and has to purchase non-food items which are increasing in price.
To add to his woes, electricity prices in Zambia are set to increase by 14 percent this year. The Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation needs to expand the country’s main power generation station to keep up with domestic demand. As Zambia’s economy grows, so does the need for electricity.
Mr. Mumbi and the farmers who use his maize mill live on a tight budget. They are simply trying to make ends meet. Mr. Mumbi says some small-scale farmers are already reducing the amount of maize they bring for milling. Soon he will be forced to double the milling fee to meet the increased cost of electricity. He fears many farmers will not be able to afford this.
Zambia’s staple food is maize. Households commonly buy 25-kilogram bags, which now cost about 15 US dollars. Mr. Mumbi fears that an increase in electricity costs will mean higher food prices and the loss of his milling business. His livelihood is under threat.
He says, “Because I grow my own veggies, it’s easier and cheaper [for me] compared to other farmers. I grind my own maize meal in the back yard and we can eat it with the vegetables from my gardens. It’s a little easier; but I know very soon it will be difficult to even grow my own maize and mill it.”
Zambia’s agriculture sector has grown in recent years. Close to 90 per cent of the sector’s production comes from subsistence farmers. But critics say the high costs of production and of doing business are likely to block small-scale farmers from growing into commercial farmers.
Mulambo Hachima is a consulting economist. He says, “Unless small-scale farmers are given vast tax concessions as in the mining sector, where [small] scale operators have recently become medium entities, we expect farmers to continue incurring high costs of production as fertilizer prices, fuel and even other essential goods go up.”
Mr. Mumbi calls on the Zambian government to take measures to protect small-scale farmers against soaring food prices. He says, “It’s essential that they introduce a recommended retail price for food because energy costs will keep increasing, and at one point we will be unable to feed our families or even buy seed and other inputs to continue farming.”