Drought desecrates crops

When you go out later to eat, chances are that probably 90% of what you will consume is imported, making Botswana one of the most food insecure countries in the world. While the Botswana Government is working round the clock to secure the national food basket, prevailing change in climatic conditions has ideas of its own. According to the Botswana Institute of Development Policy Analysis (BIDPA) Working Paper No. 27 penned by Tebogo Seleka, “At independence in 1966, Agriculture was the leading economic activity as it accounted for a share of 40 percent in total Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, following the discovery of minerals in the 1970’s, Agriculture began to decline in relative importance, and today it only contributes about 2.4 percent to total GDP, and has been relegated to being the second least contributor to GDP; it only marginally surpasses the least contributor, Water and Electricity. Two factors explain agriculture’s relative decline over time; (1) the rapid growth of other economic activities, and (2) the stagnant growth of the agricultural sector.” On the current proportion contribution to GDP, Seleka was quoting the 2004 Central Statistics Office report, another set of academics, Peter Zhou and others, in a chapter they contributed to a book on Botswana’s agricultural productive capacity, they quoted a 2007 statistic which puts the contribution of agriculture to GDP at 1.6%. The common thread here is that our agricultural productive capacity has declined over time, which explains our high food import bill and at least 90% of food that we consume coming from elsewhere. The National Development Bank (NDB), the fully Government owned bank with a mission to provide innovative financial products and services which promote economic development of Botswana, took journalists on a tour of the Mosisedi Cluster of Farms in the Ngwaketse area, farmers which most are clients of the bank. The 52 year old bank is the largest financier of agriculture in the country with over 50% of its loan book having gone to financing agricultural enterprises. Mosisedi Farmers Association takes care of the interests of farmers who ply their trade in the Mosidedi cluster and most enjoy credit from NDB. The media party made a first stop at a farm run by Hockey Investments which is chaired by Monty Cronje. The 1000 hectare farm is fully developed, complete with a farm house with very mature landscaping, storerooms, and staff quarters. After a 30 minutes’ drive through swathes of wilted maize, the media party finally arrived at the farm house and is ushered into a conference room and served an assortment of tarts, courtesy of him wife. Cronje welcomes the party and lets it on the goings on at the farm. You cannot miss the farming passion of the stocky Caucasian with a heavy Afrikaner accent. The farm, with its own fully fledged weather station, received a meagre 31.6mm average rainfall between November 2013 and March 2014 when compared to the 74.6mm received for the same period previously. During the 2013/14 planting season, the farm produced 4000 tonnes of maize and 200 tonnes of sunflower. Cronje bragged, “It was the first time in the History of the Pitsane silos that one farmer filled the silos with maize.” Cronje will be lucky this season if he musters 40 tonnes of maize. According to Cronje, the current season is characterized by low rainfalls, and high temperatures averaging a maximum of 38 degrees Celsius. “This season, which is the first phenomena I have experienced in my entire farming career, so many clouds, but they do not translate into rainfall,” decried Cronje. From analysing the data from the weather station, which they have been collecting since they occupied the farm in the 2010/11 ploughing season, Cronje knew this season was going to be brutal and they had employed a strategy to fight the dry spell. “Drought usually runs in 6 year cycles, and this being the last and driest year in our cycle we reduced plant population per hectare so as to allow for wider spacing.”  Cronje cultivates 1800 hectares, a thousand he owns and the other 800 he leases from other farmers.
Next the media party visited a farm owned and run by Mr and Mrs Dickson Baruakgomo. Unlike Cronje, Baruakgomo ploughed sorghum for two reasons; it is more drought resistant and the Ministry of Agriculture had adviced farmers to increase sorghum production as there is demand for it.  The Baruakgomos, who employ 20 permanent staff and countless casual labourers, cultivate a total of 510 hectares, 210 which they own and the rest is leased from small farmers. The current ploughing season is their second. In the previous season, they harvested 120 tonnes of sorghum and 4000 bags of maize. This season they had expected about 350 tonnes of sorghum, but due to low rainfalls and high temperatures, they say they would be lucky if they harvested 50 tonnes. The Baruakgomos got a P1 million loan from NDB in the previous season and they turned over a P1.7 million revenue. This ploughing season they are not very confident that they will make any meaningful returns.
Quet Rabai chairs the Mosisedi Farmers Association. His company, Landscape Solutions, owns the 1000 hectare farm at Mosisedi. Like the Baruakgomos, he has ploughed sorghum for the reason that its drought resistant. In the previous season he poughed 200 hectares and harvested 600 tonnes of sorghum. This season he ploughed 800 hectares and says because of excessive heat, low rainfall and doves, he does not expect to harvest half what he garnered last season. Quizzed on their pesticide/chemical disposal strategies, Rabai said, “We have an arrangement with our suppliers. We give back unused pesticides to our suppliers for disposal because burning them in the farms is environmentally unfriendly.” Asked on what the benefits of joining a farming cluster is as opposed to going it alone as an individual farmer, he responded, “It’s easier to lobby Government as a cluster than as an individual farmer. For example, we need roads, electricity in the farm lands here, and after just one attempt at lobbying Government to provide the same, we will get those services. If it was just me Rabai alone, I probably wouldn’t be reporting the same achievement.” Rabai added that they are in the process of establishing a service centre as a cluster. The service will “include a fuel point, a point where they will purchase all their farming implements and inputs, and a lodge because they want to try their hand at agro-tourism as well.”
Given the current drought situation, what then happens if farmers are not able to meet their loan obligations due to crop failure? Harry Marks, Head of Branding, Marketing and Communications at NDB, says their clients benefit from an agricultural insurance scheme where they subsidize farmers 50% to buy the insurance. If a drought is officially declared, the insurance scheme will cover 85% of the farmers’ credit and the farmer will only be concerned with covering the remaining 15%.