Monday, March 30, 2020

Fears of locust invasion could be a blow to Botswana farmers

While the coronavirus outbreak has dominated news headlines for the past month, Africa has been hit by a swarm of locusts, and some have already made their way to Botswana, threatening to cause harm to a sector already facing its own challenges.

Botswana’s ministry of Agriculture Development and Food Security officials on Thursday confirmed presence of locust colony in Gumare, the north-western part of the country. The outbreak of the invasive pests was first noted in east Africa, with Ethiopia affected the most and spreading to neighbouring countries.

The swam of locusts were said to be migrating west towards the feeding grounds of lusher inland Africa, and perhaps explains their presence in Gumare. The flying creatures are known to decimate crops, leaving fields with little to salvage and livestock with nothing to eat. Should the infestation grow and spread to other parts of Botswana, it will be a heavy blow to local farmers who are trying to recover from a challenging drought year.

President Mokgweetsi Masisi in November last year during the state of the nation address (SONA) declared the 2018/2019 a drought year and promised to develop a Drought Management Strategy which would classify drought as a permanent feature in the country’s budget plans. The strategy is expected to be completed before the end of the 2019/2020 financial year.

The worst drought in over a decade meant farmers could not yield enough crops, while livestock owners watched helplessly their stock starving, and in some cases dying. The government has reacted by increasing subsidies to mitigate the drought, and plans are underway to revive the ailing agriculture sector, seen as one of the avenues for growth by improving local supply and cutting down on imports.

Prior to discovery of diamonds in the late 1960s, Botswana was primarily an agrarian economy, with agriculture’s share of gross domestic product at over 40 percent. However, the discovery of diamonds, which is now the bedrock of the economy, resulted in the steep drop of agriculture’s contribution to GDP, falling to the lowest levels in 2015, accounting for 1.8 percent of GDP. Since 1982, the agricultural sector’s share of GDP has been below 10 percent.

The country has over the years been trying to boost the sector, but the efforts have been largely discredited as being ineffective. Chiefly among the concerns is that the hundredths of millions in subsidies channelled through the Integrated Support Programme for Arable Agriculture (ISPAAD and the Livestock Management and Infrastructure Development (LIMID) have not borne the desired results.

Further, the country’s administration has been criticised for allocating a smaller portion of the national budget to agriculture, with string calls for the government to invest heavily in the sector, especially through infrastructural developments.

Last week, the government revealed that in the past three years, they have injected P407.5 million in 427 agribusiness projects through Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency (CEDA). Other state-owned enterprise, Botswana Development Corporation (BDC), invested P92 million in Milk Afric, an establishment that will host a 2,000-herd dairy facility in Lobatse. It was also disclosed that from 2016 to 2019, the government through the Youth Development Fund has pumped P148.9 million to finance 1,510 agricultural related businesses.

During the budget proposal earlier this month, Dr. Thapelo Matsheka, minister of Finance and Economic Development, said agriculture is one of the sectors identified for economic transformation due to its potential for growth, trade, and job creation.

“However, for the sector to play this role, there is need to seriously address the challenges besetting the sector, such as poor infrastructure, low productivity, low technology uptake, droughts, to mention but a few. Addressing these challenges and others will require a change of Government’s approach to the development of the sector,” Matsheka said.

Agricultural programmes and schemes are going to be reviewed, with a view to aligning them to the refocused role of the agriculture sector under the transformation agenda, according to the minister. “In this context, government is reviewing agricultural schemes such as ISPAAD, LIMID and other subsidy schemes, to enhance efficiency and effectiveness.”

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