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Weeds in Zambia - a microcosm

Striga asiatica growing in maize (Charlie Riches, NRI)
Striga asiatica growing in maize
Charlie Riches, NRI

Weeds and agriculture in Zambia appear as Siamese twins: the moment farmers thinks of what to grow, they must rack their brains about the ever-present problem of overcoming weeds. Three main classes of weeds that small-scale farmers have to contend with are: the parasitic weed Striga asiatica, which is of great concern in a country where the population is heavily dependent on cereals including maize and sorghum; grass weeds such as Nutsedge, Cyperus esculentus; and broad leaved weeds such as Wandering Jew, Commelina benghalensis.

Regretably, weeds are not given the attention they deserve, probably because their impact is not directly seen by those in agricultural administration and even the farming community in general. According to Tamala Kambikambi, an agronomist and Lecturer at the University of Zambia, "Above 25% of crop loss has been noted" in every field planted because of poor control of weeds. She adds that 48% of the agriculture labour is spent on weeding during the cropping season. This represents a lot of hours that could be spent on other productive ventures in a country desperate for development.

In rural areas, where smallscale agriculture is the mainstay of the majority of the population, low literacy levels can be connected to the issue of weeds. Thousands of children help their parents to weed in the school months of January and February, thereby missing a lot of school hours. And, as Tamala Kambikambi puts it, "If they go to school they won't eat. We come to see the impact ten years later and the hidden costs are enormous."

Looking through agriculture and environment publications and newspaper columns in Zambia one notices there is little or nothing written about weeds, the losses they cause and methods of control. This is in stark contrast to how much is written about pests like the Greater grain-borer and various animal diseases. Probably, the weed most widely written about is the water hyacinth, commonly known as the Kafue weed, perhaps because it directly touches on the lives of thousands of people, who depend on the Kafue River for fish, hydro electricity and drinking water.

While there have been many calls from the agriculture sector for the authorities to invest in technologies that will ensure more effective ways of dealing with weeds sustainably, people such as George Chanda, who earns a living by weeding on a commercial farm, think that "Such a move would throw a lot of people like us out of gainful employment." This thinking is politicizing the issue of weed control as some people are beginning to think that governments may be reluctant to put money into eradicating weeds for this reason. But, Tamala Kambikambi believes that if this the case, such governments are condemning their people to a life of misery. Even if they lose their jobs weeding, she feels, people should move into other sectors for employment.

Written by: Daniel Sikazwe

Date published: March 2004


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