In a period of time that everything is seen through the prism of the feud between President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his predecessor, General Ian Khama, the phasing out of the Integrated Support Programme for Arable Agriculture (ISPAAD) will be seen by some as part of a plan by the former to erase the legacy of the latter. The reality is not that simple and straightforward.
Largely a knock-off of the Accelerated Rainfed Arable Programme (ARAP), ISPAAD is a universal input subsidy programme aimed at increasing grain production, promoting food security at national and household levels, commercializing agriculture through mechanization, facilitating access to farm inputs and credit and improving extension outreach. Its inputs include free seeds, fertilizers and – subject to acreage limits, ploughing subsidies to farmers. It became the centrepiece of Khama’s plan to revitalise agriculture and to date, he still touts it as one of his major achievements as president.
However, that was certainly not the verdict of the UNDP-UNEP Poverty-Environment Initiative (PEI) Botswana and the Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis (BIDPA). In 2012, UNDP-UNEP Poverty-Environment Initiative (PEI) Botswana commissioned a Poverty and Social Impact Analysis of ISPAAD with the aim of analysing the performance of the programme. It found that the choice and distribution of seed was not based on agro-ecological zone considerations; that the majority of farmers received maize seed and grew it in areas not suitable for the crop and that this resulted in high incidence of crop failure and a reduction in yield; and that the size of most arable lands was relatively small for mechanical ploughing even though about 60 percent of ISPAAD beneficiaries utilized tractor draught power, mainly to produce crops for subsistence purposes.
The UN study also found that productivity remained low and continued to decline during ISPAAD; that the national average grain productivity was 320kg/ha of grains against an expected ISPAAD target yield of 1,000kg/ha; and that domestic grain production only satisfied about 10 per cent of national staple grain requirement.
Going back to when Botswana established the Botswana Agricultural College (present-day Botswana University of Agriculture and Natural Resources), agricultural extension workers (“balemisi” in Setswana) have always played an important role in rural agriculture. The UNDP report notes that ISPAAD had a negative impact on extension outreach as it overshadowed their core business.
“ISPAAD has taken time away from the core business of extension workers, rather than improving the quality of the extension services, who spent considerable time distributing seeds, measuring fields and preparing payment certificates. A high extension worker-to-farmer ratio meant that most extension workers did not adequately cover their extension areas because of time and transport shortages. Most farmers indicated that they would not see their extension workers more than twice during the agricultural season.”
Likewise, the Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis (BIDPA) has concluded that ISPAAD failed to reduce acreage diversity and may have depleted soil nutrients.While ISPAAD should have been an improvement on the failed Accelerated Rainfed Arable Programme (ARAP), BIDPA found that that the programmes are essentially the same and yielded about the same results.
“First, reduced cultivation of legumes induced by ARAP and ISPAAD suggests that these programmes may have yielded the depletion of soil nutrients since legumes may be used to restore nitrogen in soils. Second, the ISPAAD-induced reduction in maize acreage share implies that the programme may have led to reduced exposure of subsistence producers to climate risk, since maize performs poorly during harsher climatic conditions. Finally, while ISPAAD may have induced output growth through expanding cultivated acreage, it may have worked against the achievement of the government objective of promoting acreage and broader agricultural diversification,” the BIDPA research says.
It further notes that “one of the unintended effects of input subsidies is that they may encourage farmers to concentrate on a few crops, which conflicts with the objectives of many governments and international development agencies to promote crop diversification.”
During the series of kgotla meetings that he has been addressing nationally, Masisi has been telling attendants that his government plans to phase out ISPAAD and replace it with something new and whose nature is yet unrevealed. He reiterated that message on Monday when he delivered his annual address to parliament.
“Government has adopted a new arable agricultural programme, which will replace the Integrated Support Programme for Arable Agriculture. The new programme will be introduced in June 2022 and is envisaged to increase agricultural productivity, and improve food security in the country,” the president said.
The government hopes that new programme will enable a higher number of farmers to increase production, introduce a clustering system which will reduce expenses and facilitate the provision of services such as electricity and water along clusters.
“In the long run this new programme will facilitate commercialization of farming in Botswana,” Masisi added.
Tragically, some will see the phasing out of ISPAAD as part of a “plot” by Masisi to erase Khama’s legacy. Upon assuming official power in 2018, Masisi fatefully and mistakenly used Setswana (“go baakanya dilo”) that expresses intent to “rights wrongs of the past” – a past that Khama is a part of. A different choice of words (“go tokafatsa” meaning to improve) would have sounded less judgmental about presidents (or the president) who came before him and people would not be predisposed to see his every action within the context of his fight with Khama. To his credit, Masisi’s public pronouncements have been since moved away from “go baakanya dilo” to go tokafatsa.”
Interestingly, ISPAAD was itself meant to improve on agricultural support programmes introduced by past presidents, notably the Arable Land Development Programme, Accelerated Rainfed Arable Programme and National Master Plan for Arable Agriculture and Dairy Farming. All were introduced for the express purpose of significantly improving Botswana’s food security situation and diversifying the national economy away from diamond mining but none succeeded.
Ironically, ISPAAD also had to contend with a problem that Khama, a former army commander, was supposed to have solved: laziness. Research work on the programme that was done by Wazha Morapedi at the University of Botswana shows that “many cultivated fields in south eastern parts of Botswana have shown signs of negligence. There had been no weeding, no bird scaring, and in most cases, some fields have been abandoned after ploughing only for the owners to appear when something can be salvaged from those fields.”