By JOWIT SALUSEKI
DURING the 2017/2018 farming season, the Government rolled out a 100 per cent electronic-voucher system through the Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP), with farmers contributing K400 while the State was suppose to pump in K1, 800 in the account of each beneficiary.
However despite it been a commendable project, the e-voucher has had its own bottlenecks chief among them delayed activation of cards by some financial institutions to allow intended benefactors to redeem the inputs on time from agro- dealers.
The e-voucher card is an electronic card used by farmers to access farm inputs such as seed and fertilizer from agro-dealers.
One of the key objectives of the e-voucher system is to promote the diversification agenda by exposing beneficiaries to a variety of farming implements, unlike the previous conventional FISP which started in 2002/2003 that only allowed the targeted farmers to access maize seed and fertilizers.
With the coming of the e-voucher system, farmers are meant to access different seeds such as groundnuts, rice, maize, fertilizers, stock feeds and chemicals, among other items.
The e-voucher system was also aimed at removing some farmers from the system who were not the intended beneficiaries.
However, like any new system, the recent e-voucher programme was besieged with numerous challenges which if not addressed urgently, can in future result in the decline of the contribution to national food production by farmers under the FISP.
Various stakeholders have raised concerns on the implementation of the e-voucher cards with the Millers Association of Zambia (MAZ) worried that the delay in activating the cards under FISP, could affect the amount of yields.
MAZ president Andrew Chintala notes that the delay in the activation of cards during the just ended farming season was a recipe for crop failure stressing that the e-voucher needed to be addressed properly to avert the recurrent of hiccups in redeeming agro inputs.
Besides that there are fears among stakeholders that the impending flash floods recently announced by the Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit (DMMU) may result in a reduction of the crop to be harvested.
Needless to mention that in the 2015/2016farming season the country implemented a pilot e-voucher programme catering for 241,000 farmers across 13 districts in Southern, Lusaka, Central and Copperbelt provinces.
Nonetheless, last year, it took President Edgar Lungu to discover that some farmers had not received inputs midway into the farming season.
Some school of thought believe therefore that the people tasked with the implementation of the e-voucher should have taken note of the challenges faced to avoid a repetition of the same.
They attest that the fact that some farmers were yet to access the farming inputs even as late as January during the 2017/2018 was a worry to the country.
This is because if farmers could not plant their crops on time, harvest is also likely to be adversely affected and subsequently food security too.
It is worth noting that the e-voucher is a noble feat which is premised on allowing farmers to access different seeds other than maize, fertilizers, stock feeds and chemicals from agro-dealers upon presentation of the card that is redeemed when collecting the inputs.
The system is being hosted by the Electronic Government division commonly known as Smart Zambia Institute, and participating banks and agro-dealers who are supposed to be fully integrated.
During the 2017/2018 farming season, it was envisioned that all the targeted one million targeted beneficiaries under the FISP project were suppose to access their input through the e-voucher system.
However in some areas some farmers had difficulties in accessing the inputs despite making their contribution due to numerous challenges ranging from inability by participating banks to deliver the cards on time despite capturing data from farmers, delayed uploading of Government funding to the system, to the ‘locking’ process whereby the e-voucher cards issued by certain financial institutions could not be recognised by the Point of Sales (PoS) machine belonging to a different bank.
Examples on this shortcoming abounds chief among them being an incident when Electronic Government division Smart Zambia Institute-ICTs Permanent Secretary Martine Mtonga and his Central Province counterpart Chanda Kabwe visited some banks and agro dealers in Chisamba, Chibombo, Kabwe and Kapiri Mposhi districts in December last year.
Whist most participating banks and agro dealers had fully integrated to the national agriculture system some banks allegedly delayed to upload Government funding, hence farmers were only able to redeem inputs worth their K400.00 contribution, while the Government’s contribution indicated that money was available but could not be accessed.
At Dely Agro Limited in Kabwe, Martha Banda had accessed the card under a named bank but could only get one 50kg bag of fertilizer costing K250 since Government contribution was not yet ready.
At Be-Jack Farmers’ Friends Limited in Kapiri Mposhi, Musonda Chibwe had his card issued by another named bank rejected at a PoS obtained from a different financial institution.
Thus arising from the bottlenecks which had been experienced in the recent past, lessons should be learnt to avert future hiccups in implementing the e-voucher system.
This is because the agro sector is one of the largest employer and the low contribution of 10 per cent to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) calls for radical strategies to improve production and productivity as well as increase value addition along sub-sector value chains.
The agriculture sector is critical for achieving diversification, economic growth and poverty reduction in Zambia.
It is with this in mind that stakeholders expected that the pilot programme last season should have provided enough lessons to smoothen the process during the just ended farming season.
Zambia National Farmers Union spokesperson Calvin Kaleyi said the roll- out of the e-voucher systems should be starting early in order for the farmers to be redeeming their input on time.
“This is a new system, ideally, the roll- out should be starting a few months before the farming season to allow for smooth integration and time to address challenges that may arise.
“We should not be waiting for December to implement it, because this will force farmers to delay planting their crops on time which we be resulting in low yields,” he said.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Charles Kambuta , a stallholder farmer based in Lufwanyama District on the Copperbelt Province.
His views were that the Government should put in mechanisms to ensure that farmers were able to redeem the input throughout the year as long as they had deposited the K400 in order to prevent inconveniences.
However, Vice-President Inonge Wina says the Government has started preparations for the 2018/2019 farming season, and is now mobilising adequate resources to kick off the early distribution of inputs for more farmers.
Ms Wina noted that despite some hiccups, the distribution of inputs under the e-voucher system has been a success with more than 700,000 out of the one million farmers targeted benefiting from the programme.
She told Parliament recently that the Government’s move to start early preparation for the next farming season was designed to ensure farmers received their inputs in good time for them to prepare adequately.
Ms Wina said Government was mindful of the fact that agriculture was the country’s economic mainstay and was mobilising sufficient resources for inputs to be distributed early and transported to the would-be beneficiaries.
“For the 2018/19 farming, Government has already started mobilising adequate resources for inputs to be distributed early than what transpired in the last farming season,” she said.
So it is imperative that, interventions such as the FISP and its e-voucher system are implemented in a manner that doesn’t disadvantage the beneficiaries if the country’s agricultural potential is to be fully tapped.
To implement such a highly technical programme there is need for rigorous sensitisation to ensure that beneficiaries understand the programme and process.
There is also need for intensified education especially in rural areas where there are lees financial institutions coupled with poor network system to ensure that all beneficiaries are knowledgeable about the programme.
Apart from the many benefits of the programme, there are other spill offs from the e-voucher system because a study by the Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute (IAPRI) had shown that the e-voucher system created over 3,000 new agro-dealer jobs.
With the e-voucher targeted at vulnerable farmers, Zambia has the potential to increase its agricultural output, especially that the country has a favourable climate, fertile land and vast water resources.
When all the bottlenecks and loose ends inhibiting the smooth implementation of the e-voucher are dealt with, Zambia will have more farmers empowered to contribute to the country’s food basket and subsequently the GDP.