Farmers recently demonstrated why they are known as the country's "first-borns," when they stared down government into reversing its decision to limit support of maize production under ISPAAD.
The government’s seasonal agricultural inputs programme, ISPAAD, was climate sensitive for a few weeks last year before pressure from farmers won the day.
The programme, on which government spends upwards of P600 million each year providing tillage, seeds and fertilisers to farmers, has been heavily criticised over the years for its failure to adapt to the realities of climate change.
Climate change, in its various manifestations, has played havoc with traditional farming patterns in the last decade, with running droughts experienced in nearly all the years since the 2014/15 season.
Maize, traditionally preferred by farmers, has been hardest hit compared to more drought resistant crops such as sorghum and millet. Harvests have worsened over the years, with the 2018/19 season producing a 80% crop production deficit.
As a result, the annual millions of pula spent on ISPAAD have mostly gone to waste, with the public purse coughing up even more on successive drought relief measures.
Government’s pleas for farmers to plant more of the alternative crops and reduce the hectares under maize have largely fallen on deaf ears, as has the advice to plant early maturing, hardier varieties.
This season, according to information reaching Mmegi, government finally took a stand on the matter.
Farmers were informed that government would only support the planting of two hectares of maize and the rest would have to be alternatives such as sorghum and millet. ISPAAD supports farmers with inputs up to five hectares.
“They’ve said whatever maize you plant after the two hectares, you have to pay the costs for that yourself,” Barulaganye Noko, a 52-year farmer from the Gabane area told Mmegi early in December.
“The rains are good this season and the weather officials say more is coming. “Government chose the wrong time to change the policy because maize has a good chance of success this year.”
Another farmer told Mmegi that the alternatives proposed by government were not viable.
“Farmers don’t want too much sorghum because it usually gets devastated by birds, resulting in losses.
“Balimisi have also told us that we should also plant lablab, but apparently the costs there will not be covered 100% by government. They say farmers will have to pay a share and we suspect it could be 50% which is expensive for some of us.”
It would appear that in certain areas, Balimisi told farmers that the new policy was because of low inventories of maize seed, as a way of staving off the criticism.
“We were told the limits are because government does not have enough maize seed and actually has more sorghum seed. No one mentioned anything about climate change,” the farmer told Mmegi.
As news spread of the policy shift, Mmegi is informed that farmers, particularly the powerful lobby groups in the South, began putting the Agriculture Ministry officials under pressure.
Just before Christmas, the new minister reported caved into the demands and sent correspondence countrywide indicating that the limits on maize had been lifted. The word has apparently not reached certain areas and many farmers had already planted their crops for the season, taking advantage of the improved rains this season.
Confirming the U-turn, ISPAAD coordinator, Zibani Phillime said the planned policy change had been about being more climate change sensitive in the agricultural inputs programme.
“Farmers argue that with maize, when the yield is poor they can at least feed their livestock, but ISPAAD has always been about feeding the nation, not just helping farmers feed their livestock,” she told Mmegi in a brief interview.
Analysts believe that despite the reversal, the intended policy has forewarned farmers that government intends to make ISPAAD more climate sensitive. In addition, with most farmers having already kicked off their activities under the now reversed policy, government could still see the benefits it intended to achieve.
“Nothing has been coming out of fields in previous years and the policy was intended to make ISPAAD more sensitive to climate change,” Phillime said.
For now the first-borns have their way, but all indicators are that this may not be for too long.