By MUBANGA LUCHEMBE
ONLY a few weeks ago, UPND president Hakainde Hichilema was gleefully on top of the world.
Government efforts through a tripartite agreement between the Food Reserve Agency (FRA), the Millers Association of Zambia (MAZ) and the Grain Traders Association of Zambia (GTAZ) to ensure the country had enough maize stocks to last up to the next crop marketing season seemed to have failed and backfired.
Public support for the opposition leader had actually increased among some mealie-meal consumers, and support from his teetering political base seemed to have become increasingly steady.
Mealie-meal prices were at an all-time high, and PF’s popularity hovered at all-time lows especially among consumers. While perhaps not the “tipping point of regime change opportunity” that Mr Hichilema hoped it was, the apparent commodity shortage was humming along loudly, and the UPND leader was not shy about taking walkabouts in some Lusaka city slums to whip up public emotions and support – albeit gleefully but seemed plausible.
Then everything changed as a tripartite contract involving FRA, Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU) and MAZ was signed for delivery of early maize to be done between April and May before this year’s marketing of the rain-fed maize commenced.
Prior to this, ZNFU president Jervis Zimba announced that the country had produced and harvested over 135, 000mt of early maize and that more tonnage was expected to hit the target of 200, 000mt. Admittedly, farmers who ventured in early maize production which was initially marred with controversy had done a fantastic job as they had exceeded expectations.
Mr Zimba said that he was happy that ZNFU had been vindicated over its insistence that early maize production was the only surest way the country would be food secure – much to the chagrin of UPND officials.
He added that the initiative had averted a possible importation of maize by Government to cushion the deficit before the rain-fed crop was ready for harvest. Furthermore, he said that without early maize, the country would have spent huge sums of money in importing the commodity. What Mr Hichilema incorrectly hoped to be a “tipping point of regime change opportunity” was in tatters, along with – perhaps – his odds of being elected as Zambia’s next president in 2021.
So other than winter maize, could neglected indigenous food crops be another country’s food security solution? Absolutely, neglected indigenous food crops could be another saviour: underutilised food crops (also called neglected or indigenous crops) can save the country, especially in the drought-prone southern parts of the country from hunger.
So why haven’t ZNFU and local agro-scientists looked to our neglected indigenous crops to provide solutions to the country’s food needs and for export to other SADC countries?
The Global Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) movement of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) founded on the principle that all people have the right to food and good nutrition has been working to raise the profile of nutrition on the national development agenda.
CSO-SUN has proven to be a highly effective advocacy platform that works across multiple sectors in an effort to end malnutrition in Zambia.
Besides, Zambia is a nutrition emergency country by the World Health Organisation (WHO) standards. It is estimated that over 40 percent of its people do not meet their daily required energy needs from their diets.
Millions of people around the country and particularly in drought-prone southern parts suffer more acute malnutrition during transitory or seasonal food insecurity.
Around the country, the vast majority of people rely heavily on the trio of wheat, rice and maize. In fact, over 50 percent of the national requirement for proteins and calories is met by these three foods, according to CSO-SUN. But what if Zambia was able to add another three or four more important food crops to its list? And if it did, chances are that these new crops would come from its semi-arid parts where they would first be commercialised.
Underutilised food crops are plant species that are little used, or that were grown traditionally but have fallen into disuse. These species have been proven to have food or energy value, and were widely cultivated in the past or are currently being cultivated in limited geographical areas.
Moreover, such crop species have enormous potential for contributing to improved financial situations, food security and nutrition and for combating malnutrition caused by micronutrient deficiencies.
These crops also consist of local and traditional varieties or wild species whose distribution, biology, cultivation and uses are poorly documented. Underutilised crops are strongly linked to the cultural heritage of their place of origin; and tend to be adapted to specific agro-ecological niches and marginal land.
Placing too much reliance on just a few crops is risky even at the best of times, especially in Zambia, which is presently so dependent on wheat, rice and maize. Much else can go wrong including crop failure, commodity price fluctuation and climate change leading to destabilised food crop production.
Nonetheless, crucial problems exist. Some of the shortcomings in harnessing these neglected food crop species to feed the country’s poor are based on sheer ignorance.
Surprisingly, mainstream agro-science as well as people living outside the rural areas of the country, have had little knowledge about these forgotten species.
Furthermore, there has been a loss of traditional knowledge in growing such native grains, legumes, roots, vegetables, cereals, fruits and other food crops that have been feeding people for centuries.
Food insecurity is a routine fact of life for many of the country’s poorest people in the best of times, and the national food predicament, which has been brought about by a combination of maize scarcity and rising mealie-meal prices, has only made matters worse.
As the perennial food predicament is unlikely to disappear any time soon, ZNFU and agro-scientists must be searching for new ways to utilise these neglected food crops.
Among other things these species could be essential components in helping to diversify farming systems in Zambia and thus contribute to national and SADC food security.
By MUBANGA LUCHEMBE