The perils of a subsistence farmer

Banyana Serameng used to make a living tilling just over five hectares near Kopong. During bumper harvest, the widow would sell her surplus to customers in Gaborone and use the proceeds to support her five siblings.

At times she would make a fortune and use the money to buy school uniform for her grand children at Molojane lands. The rains were good too and she did not have to eke out a living by selling airtime and sweets in congested Gaborone streets.

“This has now turned into history,” she admits with nostalgia as she gazes into her barren land. The rains are hard to come by. If they do, it would be late and the scorching heat would dry her young seedlings, driving up food prices.

Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Cereal Price Index shot up three points or 1.0 percent in October this year to 263 points on declining maize future. Government’s admission that things have changed for the worst came as no surprise to Serameng and other peasant farmers. “Last year I tried to plough,” she remembers. “I did not get anything.”

Weather effects, compounded by poor agricultural policies, have added to Serameng’s woes. Now with the current grain shortage, she admits life will be unbearable as she is currently looking after five grandchildren and depend on government handouts.

Statistics from the agricultural business department in the Ministry of Agriculture serve only to corroborate Serameng's despair. Figures indicate that, much like FAO maize futures, crop yield has been on a steady decline over the years.

Take for instance the 2010/2011 case; national crop production was recorded at about 204 000 metric tonnes (Mt), but declined by over 50 percent to 105 182 Mt in the 2011/2012 period. It is currently standing at historic low of 61 000 Mt.

Statistics Botswana figures show that in August 2012, government-imported cereal exceeded P40 million. Lecturer in agriculture economics at Botswana College of Agriculture, Dr Davis Marumo, said there has been drastic change in the rainfall patterns that has led to reduction in the production window.

He said it is bad news for the country as most farmers depend on rainfall for production and without it there will be no production. “We have no food security as nationally the country is not producing to meet the country’s need,” he said, adding on that if a country’s food production is not secure it cannot have a precise budget to import food.

“The government will have no choice but to be controlled by the prices placed by the supplier and this results in more expenditure,” he said. Marumo pointed out that agricultural sector is going down in share price mainly due to the fact that there is actual decline in production.

Ministry of Agriculture has warned subsistence farmers that they are experiencing shortage of the much needed open pollinated seeds supplied under the Integrated Support Programme for Arable Agricultural Development (ISPAAD).

Serameng was disappointed to notice that she will have to fend for herself as she does not trust that government will reimburse her if she buys the grain from suppliers, which costs roughly P200 a bag.“I always buy the extra three bags of seeds.

I have never been reimbursed,” she charges. However, the ministry insists that if Serameng and other subsistence farmers collect “authorised letters” from the agricultural offices, they will be reimbursed when they go and buy seeds from certain suppliers. “People are now saying that they are given one bag each and expected to pay for other seeds,” she adds, dismissing government generosity saying it will not meet her needs. Researchers at Renaissance Capital, an investment bank with offices in South Africa, paint a depressing picture about rainfall patterns in southern Africa.

The Moscow-based bank expressed fear in its latest report on agriculture that poor and erratic rains may exert pressure on food and inflation in 2012.This may imply the food harvests expected in the second quarter of 2012 and third quarter of 2012 will underperform compared with those of the previous three years.

In a separate interview, both the Ministry of Agriculture and metrological services agree with Renaissance. There are many Seramengs cultivating barren soil in Kweneng district without hope of producing. Bonolo Letsholo depends on government subsidies as eight of her children and husband have passed on. “All my crops dried out and died,” cried the elderly Letsholo.

She had long registered for supply of seeds from ISPAAD but doubts she will be successful. “I always have to buy five extra bags. It looks like this year I will have to buy seven bags,” she says adding that she requires P1000 to buy five bags of grain for her 13-hectare farm.

Botswana Agricultural Marketing Board (BAMB), a strategic grain storage facility on behalf of government said it sells grain to farmers at a discounted 50 percent if they produce proof that they have been authorised to buy from district agricultural officers.

Boipuso Nyatshane told Botswana Guardian that BAMB distributes fertilisers to farmers on the orders of agricultural demonstrators. “The same also applies to free seeds given to farmers,” she adds. Although efforts are being made to address grain shortage, the same problem might persist given that BAMB supply genetically modified seeds that do not re-produce.

The effects of drought are already pushing BAMB into a tight corner as the 2012 annual and financial accounts indicate that they had to import 7500 metric tonnes of drought resistant sugar beans as local production proved insignificant.

The move exposed BAMB to volatile markets and narrowed the margins, as tendered products are expensive.
BAMB decried depletion of sorghum, which led to import of about 11,540 metric tonnes in the 2011/2012 financial year, declining form the 23,803 Mt they purchased in the 2010/2011 financial year.

To supplement local produce in 2011/2012 financial year, BAMB imported about 9 000 Mt of sorghum from South Africa and 1,800 Mt from Australia as well as 5062 Mt sugar beans from South Africa.The report explained that both the locally purchased produce and imported constituted only 15 percent of local demand, easily making the country a net importer of food. Records show that currently the country has about 70 000 Mt of harvest, about 30 000 Mt of sorghum, 30 000 Mt of maize and 10 000 Mt of beans at BAMB.

While agriculture’s slice of national output has been declining over the years since 1966, the sector’s performance is critical to economic growth. Renaissance also fears that food pressure may also trigger social and economic unrest in volatile southern African region.

Letsholo is hopeful that President Ian Khama will come to her rescue.“Even though my crops die almost every year, I will keep on ploughing. it is the only thing that is keeping me alive whilst I am waiting for my grave”.

Last modified on Wednesday, 31 July 2013 16:29

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