The excitement over the forecast of abundant rains this season is giving way to anger and frustration amongst many farmers. The seasonal inputs programme, ISPAAD, has had its budget reduced, its guidelines revised and its arrival in farmers’ hands delayed. Staff Writers, PAULINE DIKUELO, PHATSIMO KAPENG & MBONGENI MGUNI report
By late September in some parts of the country, farmers had already started clearing their fields in anticipation of the cropping season, which traditionally runs from around November to April.
Earlier in September, the Department of Meteorological Services had issued its seasonal forecast indicating that the years of drought the country has experienced would be broken this year by strong rains countrywide.
Many farmers got to work, clearing, burning and preparing for ISPAAD, the inputs programme which, each season provides communal farmers with various inputs such as seeds, tillage services, fertilisers, herbicides and others.
Since 2008, government has spent upwards of P600 million each year on ISPAAD in the interests of increasing grain production, promoting food security at household and national level and supporting the rural economy.
By all indicators, the programme has not reaped any dividends for the investment. Frequent droughts have devastated harvests, while imprudent farming methods and crop selection have worsened matters.
Meanwhile, audits into the inputs programme have uncovered widespread illicit conduct and exploitation of the system, with ‘cowboy contractors’ abusing loopholes and weaknesses in the programme to bilk government of millions each season.
In March, the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Food Security warned farmers about scammers who were claiming to have won tenders to supply fertilisers, chemicals, seeds and lime.
The coronavirus’ (COVID-19) arrival and impact on budget revenues signalled that changes were coming and in June government announced that ISPAAD was under review, as part of broader spending cuts. In June, a draft of the Economic Recovery and Transformation Plan (ERTP) revealed that government was reviewing all subsidies, including ISPAAD with a view to sharpening their focus and eliminating inefficient expenditure.
In July, the Ministry exclusively revealed to Mmegi that the budget for ISPAAD this year would be cut to P400 million from P684 million, while the revision of the guidelines would be accelerated.
The revised guidelines cut the hectares government will support with tillage and fertiliser from five to four. In addition, to qualify for fertiliser, farmers will have to provide soil tests for the first time. Herbicides will only be provided on a subsidy basis to emerging and commercial farmers only.
This week, Agriculture permanent secretary, Jimmy Opelo justified the revisions, which he said were a stop-gap measure before the full overhaul of ISPAAD next year.
“The ISPAAD of today is that one that we know, but things have been reduced and we sent out the guidelines,” he told a media briefing on Monday.
“Before you knew that we would till up to five hectares, but we have cut this to four.
“This is because our assessments show that many times, farmers don’t plant that much and seeds return to us, or remain with farmers and sometime get spoilt.
“Even with fertilisers you find that these have not been used properly because of that.”
“We have increased the time for registering for the inputs by two weeks.
“Seeds are going out and tractors are being paid to till for people.
“Those who have tested their soils and have results showing the fertilisers they need, we are going to be providing that.
“We want to increase production.”
Except on the ground, farmers, already smarting from the cut-backs, say they are yet to receive the inputs. The initial cut off to register for ISPAAD was July 31 and after that farmers focussed on preparations.
After the hints and warnings about a pending revision in July, farmers only received the revised guidelines after November 10. And some say they are still waiting for the tillage and seeds, even though the official onset of rain was earlier this month.
“Cropping season is upon us and we are worried we will miss out because we are still waiting for government to give us a go ahead to start ploughing for the ISPAAD beneficiaries,” said Osupile Koduwe, who is a seasonal contractor for tillage in Kanngwe.
“We are just hanging by a thread awaiting the outcome.”
Local farmer, Innocent Kgosidintsi, believes many farmers will miss out on ISPAAD this season due to the changes.
“The ploughing season is upon us and the majority of farmers are still waiting on the government to get inputs,” he told Mmegi.
“The changes that have been made will also disadvantage many farmers because hectares have been reduced, while fertilisers will only be available to people who have done soil testing which most farmers cannot afford.”
Mmegi has established that district officers have only recently been advised to start issuing out seeds.
Coupled with the cut-backs and watching the rains fall while hopeless, frustration is simmering on some fields.
At Manyelanong lands in Otse, 50-year old Richard Malope said ISPAAD inputs had been slow in arriving.
“We only attended a few meetings and we are hoping to hear good news at our next meeting.
“However, the tractor has arrived and has just finished ploughing my field.
“Now, I am only waiting for the seeds from ISPAAD.
“The radio says this reason is going to be a good one for us farmers and we were advised to plough. “I usually harvest 20 bags of maize, which is enough looking at the size of my field.
“I am looking forward to producing even more this reason.”
At Dimawe lands near Manyana, 80-year old Ramothonyana Manyana said he hopes ISPAAD complements the good rains .
“My field is seven hectares but usually I only plough five which gives me enough harvest almost every season.”
With rainfall expected to intensify before the end of the month, farmers are praying the inputs speed up and allow them to take advantage of a rare good cropping season.