As food prices soar and stocks continue to fall, Zambians are finding it increasingly difficult to depend on maize and are being urged to look at a cheaper, drought- and pest-resistant alternative that already puts food on the table in the north of the country.
“Even if there is no [maize-meal], I can’t suffer. I am able to eat my cassava", said Ruth Chalwe, a small-scale farmer in the Samfya district of Luapula Province in northern Zambia.
“I sell a 25kg bag [of cassava-meal] for 70,000 kwacha [about $14], or 2,500 kwacha [$0.40] per plate ... [so I] also make something small to buy anything that I want – things like soap, salt, cooking oil,” she said.
Maize-meal prices have more than doubled in the past two years in a country where most people live on less than a dollar a day, so at around US$20 for a25kg bag in some rural areas, the national staple is quickly becoming unaffordable.
Out of stock
The government has been releasing maize from the Food Reserve Agency’s [FRA] three-month strategic reserve stock, and making it available to millers and rural consumers at subsidized prices since December 2008: but the strategic reserves are running out.
The recent floods have made matters worse: "We are already struggling with low food stocks - the floods will affect our food production for the coming season," Dominicano Mulenga, national coordinator of Zambia's Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit, told IRIN in an interview on 24 March.
Without significant imports to bridge the gap, private traders have warned that Zambia may experience a countrywide shortage of the staple food by April 2009, and that it could last until the next harvest in May 2009.
Bernard Machila, permanent secretary in Zambia’s ministry of agriculture, said the government had long advocated cassava farming to improve food security, to varying degrees of success.
|I think our major challenge at the moment is to make our people appreciate other crops apart from maize|
“I think our major challenge at the moment is to make our people appreciate other crops apart from maize ... they just can’t seem to accept mealie-meal [maize-meal] made from other crops apart from maize [grain],” Machila said.
Taking root, easy and cheap
Chief Chitembo, a traditional leader in Luapula Province, in northern Zambia, has been encouraging people in the 400 villages of his chiefdom to diversify into growing cassava and other traditional crops.
Besides being better suited to the erratic rainfall and less sensitive to pests, cassava does not depend on expensive fertilizer. “We have a very big problem with fertilizer here; we can’t grow maize. Farming and hunger are big problems, but fertilizer is not available.”
Chitembo holds regular meetings and also conducts field inspections to make sure people in the villages are growing traditional foods that do not require chemicals and fertilizers.
The government provides fertilizer subsidies to vulnerable farmers, such as households headed by women and the elderly, but other small-scale farmers – who constitute 70 percent of the country’s farming community – are required to form agricultural cooperatives if they wish to benefit the fertilizer support programme.
Only a limited number of farmers have managed to organize themselves and receive inputs. About 200,000 farmers countrywide accessed the programme in the 2008/09 season, in which fertilizer was subsidised by 75 percent.
“The ... co-operatives are not [always] effective,” Chief Chitembo said. “This is why I have been encouraging my people to concentrate on cassava and sorghum production; we have nothing to lose but everything to gain by planting cassava. Many people are concerned, and agreeing to grow cassava in my land.”
Justina Kalunga, a housewife in Samfya, told IRIN: “We don’t spend anything on growing cassava; we don’t need chemicals, we don’t need fertilizers, we don’t need [to buy] seeds ... we don’t sleep hungry anymore. We eat cassava-meal, not maize.”