World Bank; farmers

Zambia’s smallholder farmers and the complexities of government support

The Zambian agricultural sector rests on the shoulders of an estimated 1.6 million smallholder farmers. It is envisaged that graduating them into commercial farming will create the much-needed impetus to dent high levels of poverty and unemployment.

Nearly 3 decades after the initiation of agricultural market reforms in sub-Saharan Africa, subsidies for fertiliser and seed are the cornerstone of Zambia’s agricultural development and poverty reduction strategies. In the last decade, the Zambian government devoted a considerable share of its agricultural budget to farm input subsidies.

Between 2004 and 2016, expenditure on the Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP) accounted for 30% of government’s spending on agriculture. Why is the support to this important driver of agricultural productivity not paying dividends, despite the colossal amounts of money government invested in it?

Also read: Zambian president angry over slow farmer input distribution

First, FISP is riddled with maladministration and lack of transparency. The results are perennial delays in delivering farm inputs to farmers while ineligible persons, or “ghost farmers” enjoy the benefits.

Also read: FISP has failed, and needs overhaul – Zambian agriculture minister

This year government migrated the administration of the programme to a an electronic voucher (e-voucher) system to remedy the aforementioned challenges. However, its performance so far had cast doubt that these issues would be a thing of the past.

That said, there are also issues amongst farmers. Inertia may be part of the problem, and is based on following the norm of earlier generations where crop farming was just a seasonal activity. Given the attractive economics and the compelling motivation to turn it into a viable business, overall mobility in this area direction is lacking.

HOW IT AFFECTS FARMERS tracked down smallholder farmers on FISP, Mike Phiri (51) and Rosemary Ng’ambi (61) of Kafue, 45 km south of the Zambian capital, Lusaka.

“My sense is that need young, innovative farmers, supported with mechanisation of farming,” says Mike, who farms on a 4 hectare plot. “With that, and the large number of unemployed youths we have, there will be a lot of young people with energy and ideas to increase productivity.”

He says young farmers armed with business and agricultural expertise could boost livestock farming and diversify in many other areas.

Mike Phiri says getting young farmers with innovative ideas could turn around the fortunes of the older generation of farmers.

“There are many areas of farming where the young generation could help older farmers like me. On a farm like this, we can offer services such as grass silage and crop spraying, and we can reinvest profits into buying more land for farming,” he adds.

He confesses the maize and groundnuts he grows hardly went beyond domestic consumption. And that had been the trend for nearly 15 years. “With only a few hoes and 1 or 2 other people I can afford to hire, there is not much I can grow,” he says.

During planting season, Mike relies on family labour to prepare the field, plant the seed and do the weeding. He says that the small size of his farm is a huge impediment in increasing his production. According to him, this affects his ability to decrease poverty and food insecurity.

Also read: Zambian small-scale farmers slam “exploitative” agro dealers

Outside the rainy season, the farm remained dominant while he works at other jobs to sustain himself and his family.

“Those jobs also do not bring in enough money to invest in the farm. If I had an irrigation system, I could plant other crops in other seasons. Growing crops year-round could help me break the cycle of depending on just maize and groundnuts during the rainy season,” he says.

Undeniably, smallholder farmers like Mike will have to significantly increase their historically low level of productivity to attain better agricultural growth. This is an area where irrigation can play a critical role. However, modern, efficient irrigation systems, that can substantially help Mike increase crop production, are beyond his reach.

“With a bit of capital injection, I could buy a hand plough and expand the area of farming. Only then can I start of thinking of producing and selling the excess crops. The sales from that can then bring in the extra cash to invest in an irrigation system,” he says.

Last year he harvested some 20 50 kg bags of maize and about 10 bags of groundnuts. It won’t be much different in the coming year.

Rose’s fate, a few kilometres from Phiri’s farm, shows the extreme vulnerability of the Zambian smallholder farmers. She does not own land. The area she had farmed on for many years was taken away by the local council to create space for a housing development.

Rosemary Ng’ambi faces extreme vulnerability as a smallholder farmer. She does not own land. The plot she is farming on belongs to someone else who, for health reasons, could not plant this season.

“I depended on the small piece of land to meet the family needs. I only realised that I had been evicted when I found building blocks,” she says.

Rose’s plight is common among female smallholder farmers. Laws and customary practices do not make it easier for women to access land title. This is despite women contributing 70% of the food production in Zambia.

“I don’t have land. Where I am here is just squatting because the owner, for health reasons, is unable to farm this year,” she says.

The lack of land significantly increases food insecurity for farmers like Rose. Anecdotal evidence suggests that thousands of farmers face the same fate.

In studies done by the World Food Programme (WFP), more than 40% of households like Rose’s reported a distinct “lean season” for food at the beginning of the rainy season before maize harvests.


Typically, farmers like Mike and Rose farm on several plots of land, most of it under slash and burn for production. In most cases, the plots are small, with about 60% of farmers having less than 2 ha and 40% having less than 200 m².

Maize and groundnuts are the most common cultivated crops. A small number of farmers also cultivate additional crops like bananas, beans and sweet potatoes.

While conservation farming is being encouraged, the uptake is still relatively low. This, with changing climatic conditions and soil degradation, has resulted in low yields.

Other risks, including pest disease outbreaks and crop loss during storage and occurrence of extreme weather conditions, make them chronically food insecure and dependent on FISP.


This probably explains the paradox of FISP. “We’ve increased investment in FISP and the number of beneficiaries,” says Agriculture Minister Dora Siliya. “But it is not paying off in terms of seeing the beneficiaries graduating into commercial farmers.”

Increasing agricultural productivity in Zambia thus calls for broader shift from policymakers and end users.

The most positive impact would come about if policies and innovations aimed at reducing poverty through broad-based economic growth, including enhanced food production and wealth creation across the economy’s farming sector, matched the situation on the ground.

The country’s growing population reflects a strong need to increase food production. However, many smallholder farmers like Mike and Rose will remain tethered to where they are.

Also read: Zambian government blames banks for delayed distribution of farm inputs

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