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MBABANE, 30 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - A government initiative to encourage smallholder Swazi farmers to diversify their crops as a counter to ongoing drought and rising food aid dependency is beginning to bear fruit.
Two years ago, Amos Tsabedze, a small-scale farmer in the southern Shiselweni Region, made the radical move of replacing maize cultivation with cotton. Now the government is encouraging him to switch to cassava, the starchy, semi-sweet tuber for which he has yet to develop a taste.
"My wife and kids like it, but I think the reason is because it's the first thing to come out of the ground at our place in two years that has survived the drought," Tsabedze said.
He planted about half an acre of cassava in his three-acre field this year and was impressed by the tuber's resiliency to poor weather conditions in an area where the World Food Programme (WFP) reported a 100 percent maize crop failure in some parts.
"Cassava was like [growing] cotton, in that the long periods between rains didn't harm it that much. My family had trouble with cotton because you must sell what you grow and, at the end of the day, you can't eat it," he said.
The royal government wants the 80 percent of the population that are smallholder farmers on communal Swazi Nation Land to become more than just self-sufficient in food production.
"We want Swaziland to return to the days of being a net exporter of food," King Mswati III said at the opening of parliament earlier this year.
To ensure food security and find an agricultural means of raising the standard of living, several crops and agricultural schemes have been promoted by government.
Mandla Jele, Tsabedze's neighbour, said most Swazi farmers were conservative and still preferred growing the staple Swazi food, maize; they wanted proof that they could make a profit cultivating more exotic crops, like mangoes and rice.
"We grew lettuce once, using irrigation. We harvested, but the government truck was late to pick up our produce and take it to market - we waited all day at the pick-up point in the hot sun. The lettuce was ruined by the time the truck came," said Jele.
As for animal husbandry, Jele said, most Swazis were not adventurous enough to diversify beyond cows, goats and pigs.
A plan by the Lutheran Development Service NGO to get farmers to raise rabbits and chickens for market instead own consumption suffered a setback during a summer and autumn heatwave. At one pilot project all the rabbits, which retail at Lilangeni 65 (US $9.75) apiece, died of heat stress when the temperature topped 40 degrees Celsius. A chicken project faired little better in the heat, and subsequently the fowls were decimated by Newcastle Disease.
In the face of a rising population of Asian expatriates preferring rice, a scheme to encourage the cultivation of white rice has been launched at a time when Swaziland is importing 400 mt of rice to meet domestic consumption of 15,000 mt, according to the ministry of agriculture.
However, rice cultivation is restricted to the country's central and highveld areas, where rainfall and rivers for irrigation are plentiful.
A small project covering 22 hectares will involve 60 farmers in cultivating sweet chilli peppers, the ministry of enterprise and development reported. The ministry, whose portfolio includes foreign direct investment, has brought in a company to process the crop into chilli products.
"Our intention is to convert farming into a business in all the communities," said Anderson Mkhonta of the Swaziland Water and Agricultural Development Enterprise, a government agency.
Agricultural consultants have urged the government to make resources available for the winter cultivation of cotton, and promote the commercial cultivation of mangoes.
"Depending on demand, a 20 litre container of mangoes sells for R30 ($4.50) to R60 ($9) at market. For too long, mangoes have been growing wild along roadsides and in vacant urban plots. Children sell them at the bus rank and women sell them at the markets, but we can do much better with a value-added mango industry producing jellies, syrups and juices," said agricultural field officer Pat Simelane.
About a third of Swazis depended on some form of food aid, WFP said this week. With the summer harvest now depleted in most homes, WFP's emergency food distribution system was in full operation, the agency told IRIN Wednesday.
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