Joaquina Chitala Jarviso, 40, a small-scale farmer in Huambo, in the central highlands of Angola, is running out of options. Despite careful management and clever innovation, the high cost of fertilizer and the acidity of the soil may defeat her efforts to get a good crop in the next planting season.
So far she has achieved relative success by using only a quarter of the required fertilizer, combined with crop rotation techniques, to produce a rain-fed harvest of Irish potatoes and maize on the same ground in one season - courtesy of a donation of fertilizer from an NGO that has since left the country.
The shelves of the informal shop established by a women's cooperative she belongs to in Kalanga, about 50km west of the city of Huambo, are barren. The shop was part of the NGO initiative that used the shop's profits to offset the crippling costs of fertilizer.
"The need is for chemical fertilizer, but it is very expensive - it costs about US$70 for a 50kg bag, and I need four bags of fertilizer for one hectare each season. Without fertilizer, plants grow - but they don't grow well."
The government has claimed that it provides free seeds and fertilizer benefiting three million people; but a food analyst, who declined to be named, told IRIN the figure was difficult to authenticate because inputs risked being diverted to the commercial market, and there was no assistance for the large majority of subsistence cultivators like Jarviso.
Jarviso will use the cooperative's team of oxen to plough the maize stalks back into the soil to help balance its acidity before planting starts in October, but her future is stark.
The arithmetic for the mother of six school-going children remains the same, no matter which way she calculates it. Some of the food she produces, including vegetable crops, is used for the family's consumption; the rest is sold to pay for education fees, clothing, the other costs of living, and maintaining her home.
The monthly school fees for her children range from $22 for the eldest to $4 for her youngest, while she sells a 50kg sack of potatoes for $50 to $60. Jarviso produced 12 sacks of potatoes this year.
Her other cash crop, maize, could earn more in the capital, Luanda, but the variety that fares better in acidic soils produces a coloured product and consumers in Luanda reject it as "dirty", preferring brilliant white maize.
|Most people [small-scale farmers] don't understand the relationship of high acidity and stunted growth, and even if they did recognize it, there is no available source of lime, so they can't do anything about it anyway|
Angola's reputation as a breadbasket was forged during Portuguese colonial rule, but the almost fabled food production was a consequence of ready access to lime and fertilizer to optimize the acidic soils, and the financial credit lines available to commercial farmers.
Cassava, coffee and cotton were cultivated in the northern regions, in the south low rainfall suited cattle farming, while in the central highlands a temperate climate and a rainy season lasting more than six months favoured the production of maize and beans.
Palm oil, sugar cane, bananas and sisal were grown across the country on large plantations. At one time Angola was the world's fourth largest exporter of coffee and could feed itself.
Prof Joaquim Morais of Huambo's agricultural university told IRIN: "Most people [small-scale farmers] don't understand the relationship of high acidity and stunted growth, and even if they did recognize it, there is no available source of lime, so they can't do anything about it anyway."
There are lime pits in Angola, but they are not being worked. Morais said fertilizer costs had risen nearly threefold in recent years, "although the idea [by government] was to privatise distribution of fertilizers to stimulate competition, there is a strategy [by importers] to limit supply to keep prices high ... vested interests have an interest in maintaining the status quo."
A spokesperson for Sirius, one of three private companies importing fertilizer, refuted the notion of price-fixing and told IRIN that their profit margin on a 50kg bag of fertilizer, which sold for about $45 in the cities, was less than 10 percent.
The high cost was attributed to logistics, taxes and import duties, and the price of doing business in Africa's largest oil-exporting country, an economic condition known as "Dutch Disease".
The term was coined in the 1960s by the British journal, The Economist, after the economic distortions created by the discovery of North Sea gas. In the Netherlands an almost immediate currency appreciation made domestically produced goods less competitive, which led to the subsequent deindustrialization of the domestic economy, making imports cheaper.
Angola's oil and diamond wealth, conspicuous in a country with infrastructure shattered by nearly three decades of civil war, has exaggerated the condition. Luanda is rated as the world's most expensive city, while two-thirds of the country's estimated 18 million people survive on less than $2 a day; in rural areas this rises to 94 percent of inhabitants. The last census was conducted in 1973, two years before independence.
Sirius has fertilizer warehouses in Luanda and the two port cities of Lubango and Lobito; it spends about $300,000 a month on renting them, and a further $15,000 a month on a three-roomed head office in the capital.
The spokesperson said neither Sirius nor their competitors envisaged producing fertilizer locally, as the country did not have the necessary industrial capacity.
A sleeping land
More than half of Angola's people rely on subsistence farming, but less than 10 percent of the around 35 million hectares of arable land is under cultivation, and that being worked by small-scale farmers is being done inefficiently.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) Global Hunger Index, which combines the indicators for child malnutrition, child mortality, and the proportion of people who are calorie-deficient, has classified Angola as 'alarming'.
The WFP estimated that 31 percent of children under the age of five were underweight, while 35 percent of the population were undernourished.
Photo: Guy Oliver/IRIN
|Huambo maize has a darker hue|
Jorge Panguene, a UN Food and Agriculture Organization consultant in Angola, told IRIN the 2009/10 harvest produced about two million tons of cereal, root and tuber crops, but there was "no systematic way of collecting data".
The war brought huge population shifts, mainly from rural areas to the cities, but also from some rural areas to other parts of the country less ravaged by the war.
Panguene said an associated cost of small-scale agriculture was that people were renting a tract of land for about $250 annually; they had adapted to their new homes and did not want to return to their place of origin.
Aurelio Angelino Viti, a project coordinator in Huambo for the Farmer-to-Farmer initiative by CNFA, formerly known as the Citizens Network for Foreign Affairs, told IRIN the war years had seen the loss of the man-to-land connection. He said "the land is sleeping", as few farmers understood the need to prepare their plots before planting.
The government has a National Food Security Strategy, which includes establishing a network of food collection points to enable produce to move from the farm to the market and creating a value chain of production, processing, marketing and finance for the agricultural sector.
Sergio Calundungo, general director of the National Association of Rural and Environmental Development (ADRA), lauded the strategy's focus on small-scale farming, but lamented that in practice the money was being directed to the "large-scale farming model".
In 2009 the government announced that it would invest $2 billion in agriculture to reap a cereal harvest of 15 million tons within the next few years. The success of the initiative will depend in part on the rehabilitation of road and rail infrastructure.
The Benguela railway, which runs from the copper- and cobalt-rich city of Lubumbashi in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo in the north and bisects the central highlands, is on the verge of completion; the country's road network is rapidly being restored by foreign construction companies.
But Calundungo fears this may prove a double-edged sword. "The increased mobility will be good for the development of market agriculture and for the distribution of seeds and fertilizer, but it will also mean the well-connected city elite will have easy access to the land, at the expense of small-scale farmers, and that will increase land conflict."