land ownership

Agritech Expo interview: ‘Agriculture needs predictable policies from government’

Musika – a non-profit company that works to stimulate private sector investment in the smallholder market – has been a key partner of the Agritech Expo Zambia, since it started in 2014. We asked its Director of Strategy – Mr. Rob Munro – a few questions.

How has Agritech Expo contributed to the development of agriculture in Zambia in you opinion?

As with other productive sectors, agriculture is increasingly becoming a technology-driven industry. For the Zambian agricultural industry to be competitive on a regional and international stage and for it to further develop as an engine of Zambian economic growth, it is essential that all of the actors within the industry keep pace with technological advancements.

Agritech Expo
Mr. Rob Munro, Director of Strategy at Musika, Zambia.

Agritech Expo plays a critical role in this process, concentrating an enormous range of technologies into one event attended by a wide range of agricultural interests.

From the commercial farming corporation seeking to improve productivity and efficiency with the latest equipment or management software to the small farmer seeking to graduate from hoe farming or looking for improved seed and fertiliser inputs, Agritech covers the entire range of opportunities and has facilitated a huge number of investments across the sector.

Every year, Agritech also adds to its portfolio of exhibitions to encompass a wider array of agricultural technology solutions and this year is no exception with new aquaculture and agro-processing displays, thereby broadening its appeal and impact, and driving the growth of two critical sectors that are high on the development agenda of the industry and of Government.

Agritech Expo
Musika supports the development of a dynamic ‘last mile’ distribution network for seed, fertiliser, agrochemicals and farm equipment that reaches into the smallholder communities, accompanied with the technical information necessary to encourage adoption of productivity enhancing technologies to maximise the benefit of their usage. Utilising a variety of different channels, major input companies have scaled up the development of distribution networks beyond Musika’s initial support, benefitting over 120,000 smallholders in Zambia.

One other area where I feel Agritech has contributed to the sector is through its very high profile, attracting not just great interest from the public and the media but also the highest levels of Government, all of which helps to put agriculture at the center stage of national development.

What are the main challenges that the sector is facing currently in your view? Has it recovered from last year’s drought?

Last year (2016) was a difficult year for Zambian agriculture. The headwinds caused by Zambia’s macroeconomic challenges felt in 2015 were still very present during the year and the El Niño drought had far-reaching effects at farm level, especially at the poorer end of the agricultural spectrum.

The drought also triggered reactive policy changes that are broadly counter-productive to the longer-term growth of the agricultural sector such as the export ban on maize and maize products.

Fortunately the 2016/17 agricultural season has been blessed with very good rains and, despite some serious outbreaks of insect pests, will almost certainly see a substantially improved grain harvest later this year.

The impact of the drought on production will have been reduced this year, and the industry is confident that with less pressure on domestic grain stocks, the export ban will be lifted to allow Zambia to play its role as a major exporter of food to the region.

Agritech Expo
Musika facilitates the development of a vibrant services market in which smallholders have access to a wide range of agricultural machinery and services aimed at promoting efficiency in land preparation, planting, crop protection, post-harvest activities and storage. By partnering with key financial institutions, Musika has assisted in lowering the risk of lending and increased access to agricultural machinery by smallholder farmers offering contracting services to others within their communities.

It is critical that Government creates a consistent and predictable agricultural policy environment to stimulate the sort of investments that will allow Zambia to maximise these opportunities.

Agriculture is a long term business that requires a long term outlook to encourage investments in production, storage and handling and value addition across the industry.

How are government and the agricultural sector working together in your view to improve the industry? What could the Zambian government do better to stimulate growth?

The Government is broadly supportive of a private sector-led growth trajectory in agriculture. A very good example of an initiative that involves a partnership between the industry and the government is through the ‘e-voucher’ version of the Farm Input Support Programme whereby the subsidy from the Ministry is placed, literally, into the hands of farmers on a bank card.

The subsidy can then be redeemed for inputs of the individual farmers’ choice at a wide range of authorised agrodealers. The system has encouraged massive investment by the agricultural retail industry to meet the input, technology and information needs of the smallholder farming community. It is beginning to stimulate growth in non-maize commodity production which speaks to the Government’s policy agenda of diversification as well as diversifying climate and marketing risks at farm level.

Agritech Expo
Musika’s intervention in the livestock sector has stimulated private sector investment in the smallholder veterinary market across the major livestock producing areas of Southern, Central, Eastern, and Western Provinces. With Musika’s support, major companies have extended the distribution of livestock drugs, veterinary services, genetics and nutrition products to commercially difficult areas through intermediaries, while others have developed infrastructure including livestock service centres and spray races backed by technical knowledge provision and training services for smallholder farmers.

While it might sound like a stuck record, the largest appeal from the agricultural industry to government is still around facilitating a predictable policy environment. The general direction on this point is positive but the entire industry, and the country as a whole, would benefit greatly from lower level, more predictable and market-friendly government interventions in the commodity markets.

Which sectors in the agricultural sector are most promising in your view?

In the arable sector, there are significant opportunities for growth in the production and processing of legume crops. Zambia is seeing an expansion in such crops as soya, groundnuts and cowpeas as good market opportunities that become available.

As I have said before, the smallholder sector will see a robust growth in non-maize crops in the 2017 harvest.
The beef sector is still highly under-performing, especially in the smallholder sector where commercially orientated production of cattle can contribute substantially to farm income. It can also provide a good buffer against drought-induced crop failure as seen in the last two agricultural seasons and which will increase over time as the effects of global climate change become more apparent.

The aquaculture sector is extremely small in Zambia and yet with a growing domestic demand for fish and depleting wild fish stocks, the opportunities for commercial and smallholder farmers to tap into this market are huge.

Agritech Expo
Musika is facilitating the development of a robust private sector veterinary product distribution and service provision market in which smallholders are able to access affordable and appropriate products and services from commercial vet companies and their intermediaries, backed by technical knowledge provision and training services. Musika has also introduced these companies to other clients in the dairy sector, as their services are vital to improve productivity of smallholder milk producers by meeting the health, hygiene, nutrition and genetics demands of the dairy sector.

Any specific highlights from Musika projects from last year? What have you got planned for this year?

One of Musika’s key objectives is to stimulate private investments in new and untapped agricultural markets that can benefit the smallholder sector. Among a wide range of interesting investments in 2016 across the agricultural market and the country, Musika is particularly proud of the commercial partnerships it has created and supported in offering new and potentially ‘transformational’ market opportunities for cassava farmers in Northern Zambia and dairy farmers in Western Province.

This year and along with continued support of commercial investment in smallholder agriculture in more isolated areas, Musika is placing an emphasis on exploring and supporting the integration of digital services in agriculture. This is to create efficiency along the supply chain and reduce some of the very high transaction costs involved in commercial engagement with a widely dispersed smallholder population.

Also, in line with Government priorities and to improve land productivity, climate resilience and income potential at the lower end of the market, Musika is investing in testing commercially applicable irrigation solutions for smallholders.

Agritech Expo
One of Musika’s core strategies is supporting commodity traders, buyers and processors to establish long term commercial relationships with smallholders that involve not just commodity marketing opportunities but a bundled offering of assured off-take, access to inputs and new technologies and the provision of extension services. Musika’s investment in fresh produce procurement such as fruits and vegetables, and processing also provides strong marketing opportunities for rural women.

There is a marked increase in country pavilions at Agritech Expo this year – what do you think that is indicative of?

This is a very good indication of Agritech’s growing regional and international reputation. What started as a national exhibition has, over the course of three years, become an internationally recognised focal point for agricultural technology and Zambia should be proud to be the host of such an event.

What is your vision for this country’s farming community?

Zambia has what it takes to become a major agricultural economy and for agriculture to drive national economic growth. It has a very favourable natural resource base, a diverse, resilient and versatile farming community and it is geographically well positioned to supply food to its regional neighbours. With long term and supportive agricultural policies, continued public and private investment in the sector (and a bit of luck with the weather), the outlook for Zambian agriculture is strong.

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