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Farming in landlocked Africa

Zambia is an optimistic but also a heartbreaking study in what might be — but isn’t — achievable in African agriculture

The long driveway into Lilayi Farm, just south of Lusaka, Zambia, is lined with large shade trees. Cattle graze in knee-deep grass, and halfway along the lane I find the building I have been told to look for.

It is the new polo clubhouse, where an international polo tournament will be hosted this weekend.

Alan Miller, owner of Lilayi Farm, waits for me in the office behind his computer. From there he can cast an eye not only toward the maintenance yard but also toward their steaming grain dryer and storage facilities.

This is one picture of Zambian agriculture… modern, high tech and efficient.

Five hours to the north, near Mpongwe, I find another picture. It is quite a different one.

Jessy Mpupulwa is struggling to harvest his 150 acres of corn. He has the machinery to plant and spray the crop, but not yet to harvest it, so the corn must be picked by hand.

Jessy is one of a swelling number of emerging farmers — small-scale farmers who have grown beyond the hoe and oxen, and who have increasing financial and business skills, but are held back, among other things, by lack of access to credit.

woman standing by a corn field

Jasinta standing beside a local corn crop.

Nearby, Jasinta Bulaya farms with the strength of her hands. Her brother’s oxen plow most of her fields, then she plants and weeds with her hoe, hiring help when she can afford it. Jasinta is a model small-scale farmer, using the conservation farming methods that others just talk of.

But Jasinta wants to break through to more. In fact she needs more, because she wants to send her son to agriculture college.

Zambia’s agriculture is a collage of what can be achieved in African agriculture, and also what isn’t being achieved.

The country has the potential to be Africa’s breadbasket. That’s a consensus that even Rabobank touts on the website for its Emergent Farmer program for Zambia.

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Flying into the capital city of Lusaka, you look down to see irrigated crop circles that remind you of southern Alberta. To the northeast is the Mkushi farming block, where mostly white farmers grow immense tracts of tobacco, wheat, corn and soybeans, and where they also raise large herds of cattle.

A state-of-the-art grain-handling and -processing facility there is farmer run and owned.

Then south of Lusaka, in Mazabuka on the road to the Victoria Falls, you drive through massive plantations of sugar cane, a growing industry here.

A congenial climate, plus fertile soils and some of Africa’s best waterways combine to make Zambia a farmer’s paradise.

But only for a few — the few produce almost all of the country’s surplus. Meanwhile, the greater part of Zambia’s farmers still struggle just to exist and eat.

Commercial operations

two men standing in a field crop

Alan Miller farms 4,500 acres. Soils are deep and fertile, and Zambia’s climate allows year-round farming.

“Zambia is far from reaching its potential agriculturally,” says Alan Miller. His 4,500-acre mixed farm is one of about 500 commercial farms in Zambia, many of which operate 10,000 acres or more.

Their farmyards rival the best in Canada with the latest grain augers rising about the shiny steel bins, and with the biggest and newest John Deere equipment standing ready in the shed.

Almost all of Zambia’s commercial farmers are white, many from South Africa or Zimbabwe where they fled repressive conditions although Miller himself comes from one of the oldest farming families in the country.

He irrigates 1,100 acres with centre pivots fed by wells, including 600 acres of wheat and malting barley in the cooler, dry season from May to October followed by 300 acres of corn plus seed corn and soybeans during the November to April rainy season.

As well, Miller runs 125 acres of cabbages year round for a large retailer.

The rest of Lilayi Farm is either pasture land for the cattle herd, or used for hay, including for a thriving local forage market. Small farmers are raising more cattle, but don’t have the land to produce adequate feed.

“Irrigation is your insurance,” Miller says. Dryland corn yields between 45 and 160 bushels per acre. If the rains are late or if they stop at the wrong time, the consequences are severe.

Irrigation eliminates that risk, guaranteeing not only the moisture needed for pollination and grain fill, but also that the crop gets off to a fast, uniform start so it can tap the annual cycle of heat units and sunshine.

Weather isn’t the only issue, though. A big challenge for Zambian farmers comes from constantly changing government policies. When a government changes, it does more than bring in a new leader. All the ministers and civil servants change too.

That means farm organizations have to explain their cases and situations all over again.

This year, for instance, the Zambian government announced new water rights policies. Miller is concerned the change will cause considerable commotion and confusion among farmers. The new act is not really enforceable, he thinks. It doesn’t cover the availability correctly.

Getting the voice of farmers heard and listened to on such issues is essential, but it also takes energy that should ideally be invested in actual farming.

Imported inputs

Most of Zambia’s farm inputs — fuel, fertilizer, chemicals, and machinery — are imported, and with the lack of saltwater access, plus poor rail infrastructure, everything arrives by truck, increasing prices.

The economic squeeze then continues on the other end. Government often puts tight restrictions on food exports, so farmers are captive to domestic markets. Neighbouring Zimbabwe, Angola and Congo need food, but can often get it from Russia or Ukraine, Miller says.

Interest rates are also high at 10 to 12 per cent for the U.S. dollar which most commercial farmers work with, since American currency is less prone to fluctuating inflation. By comparison, the Zambian kwacha has an interest rate of 28 per cent.

infographic on Zambian agriculture

But for Miller, such constraints — bad as they are — aren’t as bad as his most costly challenge.

That’s theft. “That’s where the country’s problem really is,” says Miller. “The amount of work we spend checking and rechecking things, it really gets you down.”

Many years of experience have taught him where the problem losses are — bolts, fertilizer, soybean seed. And corn.

Zambia’s staple food disappears straight from the field. Lilayi Farm begins harvest with 22 per cent moisture, although millers demand 12.5 per cent for safe storage in the humid climate. He’d prefer to let it field dry, especially with locally high costs for fuel, but thieves won’t steal high-moisture corn that they can’t easily sell.

Dry corn is a different story. Once the field moisture gets down to 15 per cent or below, theft can be up to 40 to 60 bushels an acre, a third of total yield, and it’s proving extremely difficult to stop, or even to slow down.

Middle scale

Jessy Mpupulwa owns two smaller tractors, a three-row planter, a 10-metre sprayer, a fertilizer spreader and a small truck. That puts him a good notch above Zambia’s small farmers but a long way from commercial operations like Miller’s. “Harvest is the bottleneck,” Mpupulwa says. He hires about 20 people for three months to help pick the ears, which are shelled by machine.

Labour is scarce during harvest. He sometimes transports workers from 180 km away who camp at the farm.

The long harvesting period gives thieves lots of opportunity to steal. Mpupulwa doesn’t have the options Miller does. He doesn’t have the machinery to get the crop off quickly. He doesn’t have the drying facilities, so he has to wait much longer for moisture to go down. Like many others, he cuts at least part of the corn and stooks it, so it’s easier to check. Mpupulwa spends a small fortune on 10 security guards for his crop.

guard hut

A guard hut at the edge of a field before harvest.

One farmer recently complained that even security guards don’t stop the stealing. They just limit it to their own family and friends and family.

Mpupulwa was once manager of the coffee plantation of a very large commercial farm. He travelled, and gained a good sense of business and finance. (Dutch Gibson, consultant with the Conservation Farming Unit of Zambia, says one of the biggest problems of small farmers is that they are financially illiterate.)

But that edge doesn’t give Mpupulwa access to the credit he needs to grow. Banks don’t lend easily to black farmers. Mpupulwa says that’s due to a heavy rate of defaulting on loans by black farmers. Even were he to get credit, interest rates are a staggering 25 to 30 per cent for the local currency that small and emerging farmers work with.

Banks want land title as collateral, something few small farmers have. Mpupulwa is in the process of getting title to his land. Chiefs control the tribal lands, and are much more willing to sell to large companies who will pay good money than to allow the farmer on the land to get the land title.

“Farmers have the right to have ancestral land which they have inherited surveyed so that they can’t be displaced,” Mpupulwa says. “But there are few who do that.”

Mpupulwa is a member of the Zambian National Farmers Union (ZNFU) and takes advantage of the Lima Pak program to purchase inputs. The Lima project requires a 50 per cent down payment, the other 50 per cent after harvest. “The Lima Pak is reliable and has made farming much easier,” Mpupulwa says.

Immediately after Mpupulwa sells his corn, he purchases 25 per cent of the next crop’s inputs when they are at their seasonal lows. Few small farmers have that kind of cash.

Most small farmers sell to the FRA (Food Reserve Agency), a government program. It’s often a sale on credit. In the past, farmers might sometimes wait months for payment. The current government has improved that timing considerably, Mpupulwa says.

Farmers the size of Mpupulwa, who produces over 5,000 bags of corn (50 kg/bag), are in a better position. The miller will come to the farm to collect the corn. They can also negotiate a better price. Mpupulwa hopes to get about US$260/tonne for his corn. The floor price for the FRA is $200/tonne, while Lilayi Farm will get $270/tonne, because of its ability to deliver early.

“If we were given the same conditions as commercial farmers — forward sales, loans for inputs and combine harvesters — we would do as well or better,” Mpupulwa says. Not having that, they will remain stagnant. “We can’t get past the bottlenecks.”

Small, but eager to grow

“Zambia’s emergent farmers are growing and gaining confidence,” Dutch Gibson says. Farm groups are working with the banks, which are becoming more willing to provide loans without demanding land title as collateral.

Mid-size farmers like Mpupulwa also go to seminars, they get the monthly magazine from the national farm union, and he gets updated prices on his smartphone.

All that information, Mpupulwa believes, makes him a better farmer and gives him an edge when negotiating with end-users of his crops.

But it is information few small farmers can access. Jasinta Bulaya lives at the edge of her small family village close to the town of Mpongwe. There is no electricity or running water to her home. A widow with two older children, she owns 16 acres and crops about seven. She grows 2.5 acres of corn using conventional methods, and another 2.5 using conservation farming (CF) methods, plus another couple of acres of peanuts and some beans.

Her brother plows the worked acres with his oxen, although she prepares her CF field as taught, making holes with the hoe for each planting basin.

Jasinta hires help for the weeding, which is a continuous struggle in the rainy season. The heat together with almost daily rains keep weeds growing faster than anyone can keep ahead of. Herbicides would make the job easier and are more reliable than hiring workers, but they are expensive.

Jasinta is among the top 10 per cent of small farmers whose corn outyields the average small farmer by 15 to 60 bushels per acre. The yields of her conventional corn are more than double the average, around 80 bushels per acre compared to the area average of just over 35.

Her CF field can yield 160 bushels per acre, equal to that of a commercial farmer. Working harder, being more committed and having a desire to learn make her exceptional. While most small farmers in Mpongwe only grow corn, Jasinta regularly rotates with peanuts and beans to improve both soil and cash flow.

Fertilizer comes from oxen manure and compost, which is very effective but time consuming. It is the price of urea for top dressing that troubles her. Only 55 per cent of small farmers use fertilizer — another reason for poor yields.

The government Farm Input Support Program (FISP) sells packs of hybrid corn seed and starter fertilizer to small farmers at a discounted price, which must be paid in advance. It sounds like a good deal, but the packs are often delivered late, or sometimes not at all, due to corruption along the way.

Jasinta manages to have money to purchase at least part of her seed and fertilizer without the FISP so that she can plant on time (90 per cent of the government’s agriculture budget is spent on the FISP and Food Reserve Agency, leaving little for much needed research and extension programs).

The government and NGOs (non-government organizations) are all encouraging CF to improve yields, yet most farmers find the method too laborious, and others lack the commitment or the credit to do the job right.

It helps explain why, although 66 per cent of Zambians make at least part of their living from agriculture, half of the surplus food produced and sold by the sector is grown by just three to five per cent of its farmers.

It takes Jasinta three weeks to harvest her peanuts with 10 workers. She harvests the corn herself with another woman, often camping in the field to try to prevent theft, which is a big problem for her too. She can lose up to a quarter of her yield to thieves.

It isn’t an easy existence, but she makes enough money to buy food and medicine and to send the children to school.

Yet Jasinta also feels she has hit a ceiling on her farm. Her son wants to go to agricultural college. It’s expensive, but it is her goal, and hopefully after college he will come back. That would make things much easier.

Will Zambia become the breadbasket of Africa? Maybe.

Jasinta hopes it will. So do Jessy Mpupulwa and Alan Miller. To make it happen may be three times as hard, however, because each group faces such real limitations.

I look at their situations and wonder if it will be possible. Maybe, I agree. But it will take time.

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