Botswana agriculture sector has generally been seen as a weak link for a country that is aiming to achieve economic prosperity and independence, with fingers pointed at the unfavourable climatic and soil conditions in most parts of the country while others have blamed lack of adequate investments into the sector. Statisticians say Botswana imports up to 80 percent of its food requirements, a position that is undesirable. This week Mmegi staff writer BRIAN BENZA interviewed Coordinator of the Agriculture Hub, Neil Fitt, the man who has been charged with the responsibility of turning around the country's agricultural fortunes and quizzed him on how the hub has performed so far in its 19 months of existence
Mmegi : Maybe we should start by you highlighting on your mandate at the Agriculture Hub?
Fitt : My mandate at the Hub is basically to attain three objectives which are firstly to commercialise, diversify and lastly to create employment in the agriculture sector. That is not just on the farms it is also in the related industries which include food processing or packaging. But our main objective obviously is to grow crops and then the secondary industries.
Mmegi : It is now almost 20 months since you were established. How far do you think you have gone in achieving you objectives ?
Fitt : If we are to actually measure it directly, we have not gone very far. The agriculture business is a long term business and we are still just at the foundation stage which we are now building on. Most of our projects are long-term, Like the Zambezi project, which we cannot complete overnight other wise it would not be sustainable. But I am hoping in the next few years, full results will begin to be seen by all.
Mmegi : Under the Hub, which ones would you say are your flagship projects?
Fitt: Firstly, you must understand the Hub is not an implementer, we oversee these projects at a higher level, on a policy level. However, projects that we are accountable for include the Integrated Support Programme for Arable Agriculture Development (ISPAAD) and National Master Plan for Arable Agriculture and Dairy Development (Nampaad), the Zambezi Integrated Agro-Commercial Development Project (ZIACDP), expansion of the Pandamatenga dry land farms, the Agricultural infrastructure development, development of the beef industry including restructuring of BMC and Banyana farms.
Mmegi : How far have you gone with most of those projects, the restructuring of BMC for example ?
Fitt: For several reasons, it is running a little bit behind but it is now at the implementation stage. The drive is going to be on the marketing while processes have been put in place to increase the efficiency of the factories.
We have done some work on buying and price-setting. I was at BMC early this week and I was impressed by the numbers that are coming in. Although I don't have the exact figures at the moment, the indication is that it is going to be a good season given that farmers are usually reluctant to sell after a good rainy season.
Mmegi : Will the restructuring also include revising the BMC Act, which I understand, will lead to BMC losing its monopoly ?
Fitt : Yes. The BMC Act is very old and it needs to be updated so that it keeps up with current trends on the international markets. One of the aspects that we are looking at is dropping the BMC monopoly, although the market will not be totally opened up. We will still need to keep some form of control. So if it goes through, we will invite companies and individuals that want to export but control will still be maintained.
Mmegi : How much funding do you require to carry out all the projects under the Hub?
Fitt : Because of the financial downturn, some of the big projects such as the Zambezi project have been left out of the NDP10 because
Mmegi : So at the moment you don't have a budget?
Fitt : No, we don't have a budget, we only have estimated budgets until the time when our studies are complete. For example, the Zambezi project is estimated to cost about US$780 million (P5.3 billion) for water infrastructure alone for both phase one and two.
The Zambezi project is a three- pronged effort whose first primary objective includes extracting water from the Zambezi into a 20,000 hectares greenfield farming area of about 50,000 kilometres from Kazungula. The second phase includes taking the water to the Pandamatenga area to irrigate the current farms or the new farming area that will be created.
The third objective of the project includes taking the water down to Letsibogo to join the National Water Carrier.
Mmegi : How much is the actual farming estimated to cost?
Fitt : Framing will be done by the private sector 100 percent and we do already have people that we are in discussions with both Botswana companies and multinational corporations.
Mmegi : On a wider scale, how far away do you think we still are towards total food security?
Fitt : Total food security is one of the main objectives and at the moment we are doubling up the farming area in Pandamatenga and the Zambezi projects. In the South, we are are looking at Sedibeng as our main crop production zone and several other dryland projects in that area.
We are also planning on Letsame and Tuni dams which will have between 500 and 600 hectares of irrigation. But as I said, most of the projects are still long-term and are still at the early stages.
Mmegi : What timeframes are you looking at for these projects?
Fitt : They all have different deadlines. For Pandamatenga, we are hopeful that by the end of the next cropping season, farmers should be on the ground in the new Pandamatenga area.
As for the Zambezi Project, if we get the go-ahead, we are hoping to start in 2011 and have the first crops in 2014.
In the beef industry, we are almost done with laying the foundation. The Bokamoso is fully operational.
Mmegi : In terms of food security, if all your efforts are successful , when do you think Botswana will be able to stand on its own feet?
Fitt : Firstly, we will never ever produce 100 percent of our needs due to our climate. There are some foods which we consume here that the conditions here cannot allow us to produce. What we can only do is reverse the trend where we import about 80 percent of our foods and instead only import 20 percent.
Mmegi : When do you see that happening ?
Fitt : I would say between 5-10 years. As I said, it's a long process,. We are looking to have made significant difference in about five years and then move towards the 80 or maybe 90 percent mark in 10 years'time.