It is very important to understand what we want to achieve with FISP. This requires looking at two critical components of the intended purpose and assessing whether they achieve it or not.
Before proceeding with the initial intended objectives, we need to pose this question: is FISP aimed at increasing crop production or is it a poverty alleviation programme, such as social cash transfer, to support vulnerable peasant farmers and their families to ensure food security?
The FISP guidelines, which also mention that farmers should graduate after three years of being on the programme to medium-scale farmers, indicate that the programme was intended to enhance crop production and facilitate the progression of farmers from peasantry to small-scale, then medium-scale, and finally to commercial farming.
Let’s assess the practicality of its intended objective. If a farmer receives six bags of fertiliser per year at K1,000 per bag, then the assistance at a monthly average is K500 per month. With this level of support for direct input only – ignoring all other production costs and personal responsibilities – is it practical that such support can graduate a farmer from peasantry to commercial farming? Unless a miracle happens the farmer will permanently remain in the peasantry category. This explains why farmers have remained on the programme for prolonged periods beyond three years. If FISP was intended to grow crop production then it was ill structured and should be canned.
However, a positive unintended consequence of FISP is that it provides government support to peasant farmers who comprise the biggest segment of our maize production, but cannot afford fertiliser due to its high cost. Effectively, peasant farmers plant crops for their own consumption and sell the excess production to commercial players in order to generate income to sustain their livelihoods, including paying school fees and medical bills and meeting family needs. These farmers don’t qualify for commercial loans because they aren’t creditworthy. So, in a nutshell, with unintended consequences FISP is actually a social protection programme and not a crop production growth strategy. It should be classified in the same category as social cash transfer.
So before we say scrap or keep FISP, we need to understand these dynamics. And most importantly, before farmers are removed for being on the programme for more than three years, we need to understand that given the meagre support of six bags a year, it is impractical for peasant farmers to graduate to higher categories, including commercial levels, because the support received is insignificant. If anything, this is a segment which has a low crop yield per acre because at its best it is an ox driven, rain fed method of agriculture, and at its worst a hoe and rain fed method of crop production. If the support is removed it will just increase poverty levels in rural areas.
In conclusion, FISP should be maintained as a social protection programme. If scrapped, food security for our vulnerable peasant farmers will be compromised. What the government should do is clean up the FISP database and ensure the correct, vulnerable people are kept on the programme.
With regard to enhancing food production, it is necessary to come up with a totally new strategy driven by enabling policies. Most importantly, credit support should be readily available at affordable interest rates. Technical support and access to mechanised farming should be at the centre of this initiative, including irrigation rather than rain-fed methods.
President of the Socialist Party