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Last Updated: Monday, 6 February 2006, 08:21 GMT
Zambia: Fertile but hungry
By Peter Biles
BBC southern Africa correspondent

A farmer in a maize field in Zambia
Zambia has had good rains this season

As you drive around the Zambian countryside, to the north and south of the capital, Lusaka, it is sometimes difficult to understand why there is a food crisis in this country.

The fields are green, fertile and full of maize. There is also an abundance of water. It has been raining heavily.

These are promising signs for the forthcoming harvest.

However, the food shortages that Zambians are experiencing at present, with more than 1.2m people in need of food assistance this year, stem from the drought in 2004-5.

Like many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, this is about far more than just poor rainfall.

There are deeper, long-term problems that cause hunger.

Lost out

For the last five years, Emily Miyanda and her husband, Steve, have run Pamusha Farm, about 15km from Lusaka.

Zambian farmer Emily Miyanda
We'd like some government support in buying seeds and fertiliser
Farmer Emily Miyanda

In a near perfect setting, the well-irrigated seven-hectare farm produces maize, cabbages, tomatoes and other vegetables.

"We're employing local workers here and helping the government to secure jobs. But in return, we'd like some government support in buying seeds and fertiliser. That would make life easier," says Emily Miyanda.

Zambian farmers lost out on subsidised agricultural inputs when tough World Bank and International Monetary Fund conditions were imposed.

However, Zambia's Minister of Agriculture Mundia Sikatana admits that more must now be done to help small farmers like the Miyanda family.

"We are giving fertiliser and seeds to 150,000 farmers but that's not enough. It's a drop in the ocean. One million small farmers need assistance," he said.

"We hope to improve on our numbers in this year's budget because it's much cheaper for the country to support the farmer than to import food".

Food exporter

In the meantime, farmers are being urged to diversify and end their over-dependence on maize. Some are turning to sorghum, sweet potatoes and ground nuts.

A Zambian woman with her grandchild on her back
Grandparents often care for the young in rural communities

Mr Sikatana says he would also like to see Zambians growing cassava, a crop much favoured in neighbouring Angola and Democratic Republic of Congo.

In this way, Zambia would have the potential of returning to the days when it was a food exporter.

One problem for farmers is access to markets.

In spite of the fact that the Lusaka skyline lies in the distance, Pamusha Farm can only be reached by several kilometres of poor dirt roads.

"Some of the roads in Zambia are just impassable," says Henry Malumo, co-ordinator of the Global Call To Action Against Poverty.

"The issue of infrastructure is a major one. There's no way you can expect peasant farmers to lift themselves out of poverty when there are such bad roads."

Farming sector decimated

In the rural communities, hunger is directly related to poverty.

Children attending Kapopo Primary School in the Naluyanda district, north of Lusaka, Zambia
The pupils come from families that are poor. They are starving
Teacher Gift Shiyanga

At the Kapopo primary school in the Naluyanda district near Lusaka, teacher Gift Shiyanga says that around half the 500 children are not getting enough food.

"They come from families that are poor. They are starving," he says.

Perhaps the biggest cause of food insecurity in southern Africa is the HIV/Aids crisis.

This has decimated the farming sector.

Ninety minutes' drive south of Lusaka is the farming town of Mazabuka.

The Ndeke Community Centre there provides support for those who are chronically ill, most of whom are HIV positive.

Hunger trap

Under a thatched rondavel hut, 30-year old Gideon Lungu sits listlessly in the summer heat.

He is suffering from tuberculosis, and like many here, he looks gaunt and weak.

Gideon Lungu, 30, who is suffering from TB
TB sufferer Gideon Lungu is too weak to work

"Most of these people are farmers who can no longer work their fields," says Samuel Banda who works for a local non-governmental organisation called Programme Urban Self Help (Push).

"As a result the season is ending without any farming activity, and there is widespread hunger."

Life expectancy in Zambia has fallen from 50 to 32.

In a country that depends so heavily on agriculture, the loss of so many bread-winners is having a catastrophic effect on the farming sector and on society in general.

Many orphans are now being brought up by grandparents and elderly relatives who struggle to take on the burden of farming.

On the road back to Lusaka, I encounter an afternoon thunderstorm.

For half an hour, the countryside soaks up the torrential rain.

Drought and hunger are synonymous, but the storm is a potent reminder that it is Zambia's long-term developmental needs that must be addressed if people are to escape the hunger trap.


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