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El Niño pushes Zambian farmers to question maize habit

by Whitney Mulobela | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 14 January 2016 08:50 GMT

Farmer Sinoya Phiri shows the dryness of the soil on his land south of Zambia's capital Lusaka. TRF/Whitney Mulobela

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Farmers come under pressure to try out new crops and cultivation methods as drought damages maize

By Whitney Mulobela

LUSAKA, Jan 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Forward-thinking farmers in drought-hit Zambia are planning to trim the amount of maize they plant, switching to faster-growing crops such as beans that can better survive erratic weather.

"I will have to stop growing maize and find other crops to sustain our livelihood because we have had no rains this season," said Sinoya Phiri, a 42-year-old peasant farmer in Katyoka village, around 27 km (16.78 miles) south of the capital Lusaka.

He usually plants his maize crop between November 15 and 20, at the onset of the rainy season, but last year the rains did not come except for one downpour in mid-December.

"Since then we haven't had any rains, and if it doesn't rain in the next week, with this extraordinary heat, I am afraid even the little surviving crop will dry up completely," Phiri said in early January.

The abnormal conditions have prompted him to start keeping pigs and chickens, as well as try out crops like sugar beans and soya beans, which mature more quickly than maize.

Zambia faces a critical food shortage as most areas where food crops are grown, concentrated in the south, have been hit by the current dry spell.

The majority of peasant farmers depend on the rains to irrigate their maize crop, which is used to produce the country's staple food - a maize-meal dish called nshima consumed by most Zambians.

The director of the Zambia Meteorological Department (ZMD), Jacob Nkomoki, said the dry spell was a result of the El Niño weather phenomenon which has brought drought conditions to southern Africa, combined with dry air flowing from the southeast of the continent.

It has mainly affected southern parts of Zambia, including Southern, Western, Lusaka, Central and Eastern provinces. Nkomoki said most of these places recorded less than 40 mm of rainfall between mid-November and early January.

On Jan. 8, Lusaka and some southern areas were hit by a violent hailstorm that left a trail of destruction. It killed five people in the capital, destroyed buildings and washed away already wilted crops.


Zambian Minister of Agriculture Given Lubinda said the government had begun an assessment of the country's food situation to help it plan for anticipated shortages. The review is due to be completed by Jan. 23.

"I am concerned about places where there might not be enough rains, as this will compromise the food security in households," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The assessment will help the government determine which relief supplies to send to drought-affected areas, he added.

The president of the Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU), Evelyn Nguleka, said farmers are aware of the risks posed by climate change, as well as separate global weather influences such as El Niño.

"The country and the world at large are facing serious climatic and economic challenges," she said.

Besides weather uncertainty, those challenges include more expensive inputs, including seeds and fertilisers, and equipment due to an unstable foreign exchange rate, she added.

Zambia is a copper-exporting country and low international copper prices have caused its export earnings to dwindle.


Nguleka said the ZNFU is pursuing new ways of doing business amid the changing climate and rising cost of production.

Shifting weather patterns are making it tougher to earn enough from maize cultivation alone, hence farmers should be encouraged to try out new crops, such as cowpea, and develop technologies that could help maintain harvests, she added.

"I would like to urge my fellow farmers to diversify their production and carefully select crop varieties which will reach maturity within the remaining wet months," she said.

The rainy season normally continues through to mid-March, while maize requires 60 to 90 days to mature.

Minister Lubinda said the government aims to ease climate change effects for farmers by including other commodities like rice and cotton in its Farmer Input Support Programme. Currently it provides free maize seed and fertiliser.

"Diversification will ensure that the farmers and the nation as a whole are food and nutrition-secure, as well as increasing household incomes," he said.

Farmers like Phiri have already started expanding into different crops and livestock farming. And they are embracing alternative methods such as conservation agriculture, which supports a range of crops and low soil tillage.

But if farmers do not adapt quickly, Zambia's food security will be seriously compromised - as could happen after the recent crop failures, Phiri warned.

In the future, people will need to alter their habit of eating so much maize meal, he added.

"It is becoming unsustainable to grow maize because of the changing weather patterns," he said. "I am afraid if we don't change our farming methods, especially the growing of maize, we will end up as a hungry country."

(Reporting by Whitney Mulobela; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

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