Agriculture is one of the major productive economic sectors of the country, and the majority of Zambia’s population are dependent on it.
Despite the sector being critical, fertilisers, pesticides and transport are expensive, and the cost of food is rising, which are all factors affecting farmers.
Yet the production of food is still taken for granted by a lot of people. But to farmers, producing a healthy crop that can give them an income on a daily basis can be a challenge.
Poor soil quality, unpredictable weather patterns, pests and diseases are making it hard for farmers to increase production or earn a good income from their crops.
Additionally, climate change is increasing the severity of pests and diseases in the country resulting in crop losses thereby threatening food security in most homes.
However, Government is committed to improving food security by helping small-scale farmers, who grow around 80 per cent of the nation’s food, to cultivate in a more sustainable way through Plant Health rallies.
Plant Health Rallies is a new concept and approach, that seeks to offer solutions on specific crop problems faced by farmers.
Against this background, staff from the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, held Plant Health rallies with farmers to share management solutions on specific crop problems.
The goal of these rallies was to create awareness of the Plantwise initiative that was launched in May, 2013 with an additional focus of advising farmers how to manage pests and diseases reported in the places where the initiative is currently running plant clinics.
Staff were drawn from different districts of the country, and trained as Plant Health Doctors. Rallies were held in Rufunsa, Chongwe, Chilanga districts of Lusaka Province while in Central Province, the same events took off in Chibombo and Kapiri Mposhi.
Farmers who attended these rallies were sensitised on how to control various pests and diseases of Groundnuts, Tomatoes, Maize, Cotton, Cabbage, Sweet Potatoes among others.
A small-scale farmer in Chilanga District, Moses Banda has seriously taken up vegetable production.
Mr Banda commends Government for its continued support in assisting farmers in addressing crop problems and how best to control them organically.
“My vegetables always had holes due to Sefasefa (Diamond Back Moth) and all I could think of was spraying but little did I know that the chemicals were harmful not only to the soils but humans and the entire ecosystem.
Through this interaction with the Plant Doctors, I have learnt that due to climate change, insects are being resistant to chemicals and that we should consider treating these insects organically through the use of crop rotation and Neem tree, which is soaked in water and sprayed to infected plants,” he explained.
Plantwise addresses the constant struggle that small-scale farmers go through to produce food by providing affordable, locally available solutions to plant health problems.
Pests and diseases, if left unattended to can have serious consequences. As such, farmers need to be equipped with the necessary knowledge to fight pests and diseases if this problem is to be contained.
Though, Plant Clinics are at the heart of Plantwise and trained Plant Doctors diagnose pests and disease problems brought by local farmers using plant samples on a one on one basis, during Plant Health rallies, farmers come in large numbers and are addressed by Plant Doctors on various crops grown by the farmers.
A Plant clinic is a place where advice is given to farmers on the management of plant pests and diseases and the best agronomic practices. Farmers are encouraged to bring diseased plant samples for diagnosis of the cause. Just like in a normal doctor – patient relationship, the farmer discusses the challenges faced in the cultivation of the crop with the plant doctor, now in this regard the patients are the plants, the care takers are the farmers and the nurses or doctors are the trained plant doctors and the chemists are the registered Agro dealers.
Kapiri Mposhi senior agricultural officer, Kanyanta Muchulu, explains that a farmer makes a step by taking samples of the particular crop affected by either pests or disease to a trained plant doctor who later advices the farmer and recommendation is given to the farmer.
“Information of how the farmer manages the crop and its condition is obtained by asking questions.
Further, information of what the farmer is doing to address the situation in terms of control measures is also availed to the doctor,”says Mr Muchulu.
He further adds that the farmer is given advice on the cultural methods and the chemicals to use in trying to control pests and disease. However, emphasis is made on the use of chemicals due to the danger and risks associated with their use.
“The cultural measures such as the use of certified seed, crop rotation, proper handling of seedlings and pruning are given first but once the condition becomes severe, the farmer is then told to use only the chemicals which are not hazardous,” says Mr Muchulu says.
Proper advice on chemical dilution, post-harvest dilutions including safety measures of how to handle the chemicals is given to the farmer.
Other natural remedies are field hygiene, repellants like onion and pepper. Sometimes, farmers uproot plants, which have been attacked by nematods.
The project is currently running in the following districts Lusaka, Chongwe, Rufunsa, Kabwe, Kafue, Chisamba, Chibombo, Nyimba, Chilanga, Mazabuka, Chikankata and Nkeyema.
Clinics and Rallies help farmers to access the information they need when they need it, and it further helps them reduce crop losses thereby improving crop health and their livelihoods.
Plantwise, whose motto is, ‘Lose Less and Feed More,’ is a global programme led by Centre for Agriculture Bioscience International (CABI) to collect and share information about plant health using different avenues such as Plant Clinics and Plant Health Rallies.
Plantwise endeavours to increase food security and improve rural livelihoods by reducing crop losses. This is achieved by establishing sustainable networks of local plant clinics, run by trained plant doctors, where farmers can find practical plant health advice.
With the initiation of Plant Health clinics and rallies, it is hoped farmers will have solutions to their problems and assist in boosting crop productivity and food security amongst households.
Improving food security is not a myth – with the right knowledge surely, more people can be fed.-NAIS