As long as government maintains the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp), we should forget that farmers will ever take maize farming as a business.
This is the message President Peter Mutharika did not tell Malawians this week when he presided over the second congregation of the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar) on March 21 2018.
Mutharika, speaking as Chancellor of Luanar, among many other things, called for a mindset change. He urged Luanar graduates to go into farming. He said in some countries educated people do not regard farming as a job or profession for the less educated.
I found Mutharika’s statement misplaced. But I am not blaming him for this. He cannot be expected to know everything that he needs to tell the nation at a function like a congregation. That is the job of his advisors. These start with his Cabinet Ministers, down to the technocrats, who draft his speeches. These are the people who ought to advise the President about what to say during such functions—unless the President completely diverted from his prepared speech.
That is why I was very happy when I read the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) manifesto in 2014 which promised to scrap off Fisp. But I knew it was just fiction. Fisp is one government programme which has made commercial farming especially for maize, unattractive. Of course, there are other crops that people can grow such as groundnuts, soya beans and beans, to mention but a few, which are not on Fisp. But in Malawi, one of the easiest crops one can grow and expect to get good returns from as a commercial crop, all things being equal, is maize. This is because it is the country’s staple. But when the crop is highly subsidized by government and its market highly regulated, no-one expects it to attract huge investments. There is just too much uncertainty about it. Those with the resources would rather go into agro-trading and leave maize farming to the subsistence farmer.
The rationale for regulating the crop—such as banning its exports—is that it is subsidized by government. This makes sense. The solution, therefore, is to phase out Fisp completely. But this would not be politically correct—in the short term. So, we will continue to be saddled with policies that harm our agricultural productivity but buffet our political egos.
The other problem for the country’s maize farming is that it is highly dependent on rain. We are yet to harness the huge water bodies like Lake Malawi to improve commercial farming. Only 200 000 hectares (ha) or 0.53 percent of the country’s agricultural arable land (3.8million ha) is irrigated. This is a serious misnomer.
So, on the basis of being politically correct, I can guarantee that Fisp will be upon us until kingdom come. No political party that aspires to remain in or go into government will ever meddle with Fisp. Of course, at the peril of our other objectives.
So the message that APM should have told the nation at this week’s congregation at Luanar is that his next government will scrap off Fisp to make maize farming profitable. But this is a political statement which not even his technocrats (those that draft his speeches or talking notes, will advise the President to make at a political podium). But they should be able to tell him off record. It is up to the President to cherry pick. And with elections only 13 months away, the President or any presidential candidate will not publicly make such unpopular statements.
It is the same as the chancellor of a public university presiding over a congregation and announcing to the students that the college will raise fees to improve their welfare and teaching staff. It would be politically suicidal. Yet this is the reason the infrastructure in most of our public universities—save for the College of Medicine—is pathetic.