Input trade fairs boost harvests in Swaziland
Rome/Mbabane – With food prices hitting record highs world wide, FAO is helping implement urgent measures to increase local food production in the most affected countries. A telling example from Swaziland shows how input trade fairs enable poor farmers boost their crops.
Passing through the sloping green fields of Swaziland’s central plains one may well imagine that agriculture is thriving in this tiny Southern African kingdom, almost casually feeding its people and leaving plenty for exports of crops such as maize or cane sugar.
But to the west, in the arid Lowveld, such fantasies are soon forgotten amid a barren landscape that speaks of a nation struggling against climatic adversities and a devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic, where smallholders are now challenged by high food, seed and fertilizer prices too.
“I’m afraid it is because of global climate change,” says Ben Nsibandze, chairman of Swaziland’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), pointing to the scorched surroundings. “Now you never know when you’re going to have rain, or drought.”
Last year, when Swaziland suffered its worst drought in fifteen years, leading to the lowest harvest on record, Mr. Nsibandze played a pivotal role in mobilising assistance to 400 000 people in need of food, water, sanitation and health services.
The drought also posed a threat to the immediate future of thousands of smallholder farmers. Their harvests ruined, they faced the prospect of going into the planting season empty- handed, with no seeds set aside and no money to pay for other inputs such as fertilizer or tools. In response, FAO helped the Government set up Input Trade Fairs to furnish critical planting material to farmers in need.
Since the late 1990s Input Trade Fairs have become a preferred FAO method to stimulate local food production. Attending farmers receive vouchers with cash values, so that they can choose what to purchase among the seeds, fertilizers, tools and tillage services on offer. The fairs also provide a market for local producers of quality seeds and support local agricultural retail businesses.
The United Nations funded the initiative with US$ 1.5 million from its own Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), while the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO) came up with another US$ 1.5 million.
The crest of a wave
“If we can make small farmers self-sustaining, they can be cushioned from the effects of disasters such as droughts,” says Jacqueline Chinoera, ECHO Programme Officer. “It is this mandate that we are really interested in, to ensure that every farmer can grow for their own subsistence.”
With ECHO’s support, FAO organized 25 trade fairs in central and eastern Swaziland between October and November 2007, right before the planting season. Some 20 000 affected families selected by the government were issued with vouchers by FAO to buy seeds, fertilizers tools and other inputs of their choice.
Six months on John Weatherson, FAO Emergency Coordinator in Swaziland, says that it worked extremely well. “The inputs were there at the right time, there was no cost to the farmers, so they felt really on the crest of a wave.” Participating farmers are estimated to have harvested some 10,000 tons of maize.
“When you find a winner, you go with the winner,” says Mr. Weatherson, for whom the way forward is clear. More input trade fairs should be organized urgently, he says, this time as part of the Initiative on Soaring Food Prices (ISFP) launched by FAO in December 2007.
The initiative is intended to help small farmers boost domestic agricultural production in the food importing countries that are most vulnerable to high prices. With the cost of food, fuel and fertiliser at historic heights, poor Swazi farmers could be back where they were last year before the planting season: unable to afford the basics to sow their land.
“There are so many factors coming in below this cloud and making it go up like an atom bomb,” Mr. Weatherson says, referring to the complex food crisis currently gripping the world. “So, to be serious about food production starts here, in this country, now.”