The National Agricultural Show opened on Thursday without the euphoria of yesteryears, albeit under a suitable theme; “Practising smart agriculture to combat the effect of climate change.” The theme recognises the current challenges we are faced with and proposes solutions going forward. It is undeniable that persistent droughts which are ravaging the Southern African sub-continent and our country in particular are due to changing climate conditions. The end result has been food security challenges, starvation, malnutrition, disease and poverty caused by declining agricultural production, which is partly aggravated by poor farming methods used by smallholders, who make up the largest section of the sector. Therefore, climate smart agriculture, which uses conservation agriculture techniques, drought tolerant crop varieties and livestock breeds as interventions, is imperative to reverse the adverse impact of climate change.
In recognition of the predicament faced by the agriculture sector due to emerging challenges, government in 2012 established the multi-million Pula Agricultural Services Support Project (ASSP) under Ministry of Agriculture. The unit was set up to support smallholder agricultural production to enhance the productivity of rain-fed agriculture through refocusing the Integrated Support Programme for Arable Agriculture Development (ISPAAD) to become a more effective instrument of rural poverty reduction. ISPAAD had been a phenomenal success with yields multiplying since it was rolled out. Riding on this success, ASSP was to augment such achievement by contributing towards economic diversification, reduction of rural poverty, food security and improved livelihoods of rural communities. Ever since it was set up we have never heard anything about progress in ASSP. Nothing! With less than a year before completion, it is depressing to learn that the project is doomed for failure. The Agricultural Service Centres (ASCs), which are supposed to be up and running are nowhere to be found, the Waste Water Irrigation scheme has never got off the ground, while the planned agricultural mechanisation strategy remains a pipe dream. All these were budgeted for, and millions set aside for implementation. But the MoA has nothing to show.
President Ian Khama recently announced a raft of subsidies to support farmers to sustain production during challenging times. All these will amount to nothing, and government will continue pouring millions down the drain, if processes and systems are not put in place to ensure that potential beneficiaries are assisted. The ministry should stop paying lip service and address concerns raised by farmers regarding challenges they encounter. Beyond dishing out handouts, and returning to the comfort of their air-conditioned offices MoA officials must look outside our borders to similarly circumstanced countries for solutions to the agriculture sector. As a facilitator, government should forge partnerships with strategic organisations and countries, which can provide technical and financial support for the local farmer to develop and graduate to commercial production or at the least assist them to adopt sustainable agricultural practices. Already Japan has been helping Botswana with modern technologies on environmental management to adapt to climate change, including the forest initiative for preservation of our forests. The Nara Institute of Science and Technology of Japan is working with MoA on the commercialisation of a research technology involving the use of genes found in Botswana melons. Yet another project is the Jatropha research project, targeting the production of climate smart biofuels.
It is not enough for the Minister of Agriculture to call on Batswana to take an active role in making agriculture a success notwithstanding the climatic challenges, when project implementation, is collapsing under his nose. Millions of tax payers’ funds are wasted on brilliant projects due to failure at implementation and monitoring. Rather than wish the implementation challenges away, the minister should get down to business and weed out incompetence, deadwoods and corrupt officials who are impoverishing Batswana while lining their pockets.