Saturday, May 18, 2024

I Have a Dream About Botswana Agriculture

At the time of independence in 1966, Botswana was largely an agrarian society. Even though a lot of able bodied persons were seeking employment in the Goldfields of South Africa, agriculture remained to the number one sector in terms employment.

Furthermore, Botswana was a nett exporter of agricultural products. Our export market was of course South Africa and this was for both beef and field crops. Even though migrant labour to the south was somewhat hurting the agricultural sector by taking a sizeable population of young men, it was at the same time boosting it through exports.

The silos at Bonnington Farm opposite The Grand Palm remain as a vivid reminder that this country used to export agricultural products. This was the collection point and also served as a storage facility. This was a successful dairy farm and also served as a collection point for farmer’s produce in the entire Kgatleng and Kweneng Districts.

I recently went through the book written by the late President Ketumile Masire, The Memoirs of a Democrat: Very Foolish or Very Brave. The most eye catching aspects in this book was the man’s struggles with agriculture in the 1950s and going further. Interesting enough, this farmer was directly exporting his products to Kimberly in South Africa through the rail port of Lobatse.

The standard around the world is that anything that hits the export market is above standard quality. In this case, our forerunners were producing above par and they have set the standard. As a farmer, upon reading Masire’s book you will come to the realization that we are not doing enough.

But why has agricultural production dropped so drastically even under much better conditions than those of the 1960? Farming methods have improved and infrastructural development has come make the transportation of agricultural products much easier. Government has created schemes that assist farmers to achieve a rather desirable agricultural production.

The colonial government literally did nothing to improve our methods in food production. Currently government pumps in billions of pula into both the crop and animal sectors of the agricultural economy and yet there is very little to show from the farmer’s view point. Cattle farmers are decrying low prices for their products and I will not delve much into that territory because it is alien to me. I will want to speak for arable farming.

The biggest problem that crop farmers are face is the availability of a reasonable market for their products. This is the root of all our problems. Government has played its part in providing a reasonable environment for achieving some semblance of success in crop agriculture by providing schemes such as ISPAAD (Integrated Support Programme for Arable Agriculture Development).

The biggest two enemies to this brilliant government scheme have been the lazy unwilling farmer and lack of markets. A few farmers who have remained resolute to do the best they can under the circumstances of regular droughts have had their worst undoing in the market place for their crops. Botswana Agricultural Marketing Board has been a let-down to farmers.

ISPAAD cannot run perpetually as some may want to think. This scheme has to serve as a springboard toward arable agricultural production and it has to come to an end at some point. But the way things look at the moment, arable agriculture will collapse the moment government withdraws this programme. The prices at BAMB are non-attractive to say the least. They cannot sustain agricultural operations effectively more especially for the small and medium commercial farmers.

By the end of the ISPAAD scheme, more than two thirds of Botswana’s farmers must by then be commercial farmers. Often commercialization of agriculture in Botswana is usually measured in terms of the land size and not value. It is the farmers that do a hundred ha and further who are considered to be commercial.

It is highly possible to achieve commercialization on a five hactor field as long as agricultural production is intensified and maximized. With all the hectarage that has been cultivated and planted through the scheme every year, this country must by now be self-sufficient and even exporting to other countries.

Recently BAMB made an announcement that they would soon be closing their doors for last season’s harvest. In the first place, why should there be deadlines for such products? In fact farmers should be encouraged to create their own storage facilities. BAMB has on occasions complained of lack of space and has returned farmers with their products.

In any case the prices for agricultural products at BAMB are not anything near market price. The dream that I have in solving this problem is for farmers to create a large cooperative establishment through which they can sell their products and enjoy the fruits of their labour.

The cooperative should have agencies countrywide and a logistical network that will enable the remotest of farmers to bring their produce to the market. Cooperatives were at work in this country at the time of independence. They were serving the farmer well but at some point they were collapsed by capital greed. The creation of a cooperative establishment that will absorb what farmers are able to produce will become a sustaining factor once ISPAAD closes shop as it cannot exist forever.

The cooperative will have to focus on fodder production and export of grains. Our current import bill for animal feed in this country is staggering and yet we have so much arable land available to produce such. Even then the food bill is also high because whatever we produce as a country has not been effectively committed to manufacturing.

The cooperative will come to eliminate the BAMB monopoly. It is this monopoly which is dragging Botswana’s arable agriculture in the mud. With the advent of the cooperative, high prices of animal feed will be a thing of the past. We will also be able to export grain to countries like Congo Brazzaville which has a food import bill of US$990 million.

Please contact Richard Moleofe on 71302630 to engage further in debate around this crucial issue.

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