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The roads of Zambia

We’ve always known the country’s agriculture potential is massive. Now there are signs it is being opened up

Associate editor Maggie Van Camp travelled to Zambia through an International Federation of Agricultural Journalists investigation into the country’s challenges and opportunities. One farm was ultra-modern and 74,000 acres, she reports. Others struggle with basic subsistence. The future may need both.

Driving to Nsongwe, Zambia from tourist-rich Livingstone is a tooth-rattling, 30-minute adventure through a savannah of parched grass and scrub trees. Occasionally we see a clearing and a mud hut with its thatched roof, an open firepit, chickens, and brightly dressed women and children.

Canadian Colin Eves felt called to help a country with one million poor farmers.
Canadian Colin Eves felt called to help a country with one million poor farmers. photo: Maggie Van Camp

Colin Eves drives the jeep over the rough winding red dirt road. He’s a partner in The SilvaGro Partnership, one of the largest forest seedling producers in Western Canada, and he also runs a not-for-profit charity in rural Zambia.

In 2007, after the tragic death of their teenage son, he and his wife, Sandra, went to Zimbabwe to help a medical team treat displaced people after a flood. Soon after, the couple started the charity called the SAM project, for Sustainability through Agriculture and Micro-enterprises ( It’s a not-for-profit, non-political and secular charity that aims to help the HIV/AIDs-ravaged population, improving its standard of living and providing education and medicine.

Eves and I are on our way to see the goat-breeding project his charity has helped create. In Zambia, goats are mostly left to forage through the villages and along the roadsides. Eves and the local chairman of this project, the successful emerging farmer and village head Teddy Neube, set up a goat-breeding co-operative of five members to improve genetics, piggy-backed with some husbandry training.

A sign of hope, entrepreneurial farmer Teddy Neube is working to integrate improved goat genetics.
A sign of hope, entrepreneurial farmer Teddy Neube is working to integrate improved goat genetics. photo: Maggie Van Camp

They imported three big Boer billy goats from South Africa and added them to a small rapidly growing herd of about 65 to cross with females, housed in little barns on stilts. The F1 offspring of bigger, hardier hybrid nannies will be bred back to another Boer male.

Over the 18 months so far, the goat-breeding co-operative has already established three of its planned five goat farms, says Eves.

Along the road to the village, we meet a donkey cart hauling jerry cans full of water to the farmyard at the top of a hill that has no well. Hardly anyone out here has their own well. Every day, the farmer hauls water a few miles from the community well that the Rotary Club drilled.

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The World Bank’s report, Recent Economic Developments and the State of Basic Human Opportunities for Children, has urged more investment targeted at the region’s lagging rural areas, particularly in infrastructure services such as drinking water, sanitation and electricity. Basic opportunities for children still remain a challenge. The same report says the largest barrier is for those born in rural areas, and for those who are female.

At the bottom of yet another bumpy hill, two small children flag Eves down for a ride. He recognizes them as children of a friend from the village and he offers to drop them off at the well. Beaming, they hop in the back. Their English so far consists of, “I am fine, and how are you?” but by the time they finish school (public education only goes to Grade 7), they’ll be as fluent in English as the majority of the population. Beaming, the girl places her hand against mine, filling only my palm.

“I guess I came here to help them hold on to their children a little longer,” says Eves. “People are like comets, they come into our lives and we remember their light.”

Running through this heart-wrenching story is money and greed — government spending, foreign investment, NGO (non-government organization) and mission projects. The problem with many well-meaning NGOs and government agencies is that individuals take advantage of systems. “Some are gamed by the bureaucrats running the NGOs,” says Eves. “Sometimes corrupted funds are channelled to the wrong places so they don’t make it to the villages.”

As we drive by a cluster of huts, Eves points out an empty corncrib made of sticks about two feet off the ground. The maize crop this year was poor because of ill-timed rains, and Eves says folks will be relying on the government to give them their allotted two 50-pound bags of maize cobs to last them through until the next crop.

A typical corncrib, built of sticks and kept a couple of feet off the ground.
A typical corncrib, built of sticks and kept a couple of feet off the ground. photo: Maggie Van Camp

Maize is the staple here and is made into a sticky mash so it can be hand rolled in balls and dipped in stews and vegetables. After years of subsidies to grow maize, Zambia is starting to shift to more diversified crops and diet. “The composition of the food basket is maize, maize and more maize,” says Given Lubinda, minister of agriculture and livestock. “We are trying to improve, not only food security but also overall nutrition.”

Build it big

Big thinking and big opportunities can create big operations in Zambia. But don’t forget to budget for rifles

From the main highway it takes at least half an hour to traverse the washboard roads and cut across the fields that are fenced with electrified barbed wire, with armed guards stationed at the gates.

Dust flies up, and our vehicles are going only slightly faster than the many bicycles along the way. At one point, baboons and monkeys noisily scatter, climbing up the overhead trees.

At the end of our journey is the impressive 74,000-acre Zambezi Ranching and Cropping Ltd. The farm’s numbers are staggering: 380,000 broilers 6.4 times a year; 8,000 beef cows and calves; a $1.5-million piggery producing gilts; and 320 acres of tobacco with a processing unit. Along with the huge expanse of dryland pastures, there’s also 2,500 acres of open-pollinated seed maize, 2,500 acres of soybeans, 500 acres of Irish potatoes (they are a new crop in Zambia) and 1,400 acres of wheat under pivot irrigation that lets them rotate two to three crops a year.

Graham Rae manages 74,000 acres of crops in a land often without passable roads.
Graham Rae manages 74,000 acres of crops in a land often without passable roads. photo: Maggie Van Camp

Zambezi Ranching and Cropping Ltd. is a joint venture formed by Graham Rae with Ed Fleming from the U.K. and Francis Grogen, originally from Ireland but who now also owns Zambia’s largest beef feedlot and slaughterhouse, Zambeef.

Rae arrived from Zimbabwe in 2001, bringing his equipment, formidable energy and expertise to Zambia after pro-government militants, led by veterans of the 1970s liberation war, began invading white-owned farms in the former Rhodesia.

Recently, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe signed a law giving the remaining 2,900 white farmers 45 days to wind up their operations and another 45 days, expiring at midnight on August 8, to move off their land and make way for black settlers. Compared to Zimbabwe, Zambia feels like a land of opportunity for Rae. “I’m a farmer, my grandfather was a farmer, my father was a farmer,” says Rae. “I can’t sleep in the city.”

In 2001, the partnership’s 20,000 hectares were sitting bare and undeveloped — no wells, no electricity, no fences, no houses, no buildings. After a decade of cheap, abundant labour and modern farming technology, however, now it’s swarming with capitalism.

Today only 38 per cent of the African population has access to electricity, and the penetration rate for the Internet is under 10 per cent. In Zambia electricity is prepaid. In the city, tokens are sold in kiosks at the side of the road.

Small farms have no wells and farmers spend hours a day hauling water for their families and to livestock.

Small farms have no wells and farmers spend hours a day hauling water for their families and to livestock. photo: Maggie Van Camp

In the 14 years Rae has been here, the secondary road to the farm has been graded only once, and he has never seen any government improvements to the roads. That might be about to change. Yamfwa Mukanga, Zambian minister of transport, works, supply and communications says the government is hoping to create private/public partnerships to improve feeder roads. This could work well for the large commercial farms, like Rae’s, with their own fleet of equipment.

As the crow flies, Zambezi Ranching and Cropping Ltd. is only 20 km from Zambia’s capital Lusaka, and theft is a big problem. Rae even buys feed instead of milling it himself so he knows exactly what’s coming over his weigh scales at the gate. “It’s like a takeout shop,” he says.

Every night, 16 to 22 armed guards protect cattle and property. Rae spends $15,000 a month on security and says Zimbabwe was even more malicious and random. Every night, shots are fired, and a few weeks before my visit a cattle poacher was killed. Sometimes, though, his guards come under fire too. “We are about 15:1 here,” says Rae pragmatically talking about the ratio of human deaths almost as if they’re production risks. “It’s like the Wild West here.”

The farm employs 1,800 people who are supplied with housing and free medical. Residents of the local village also use the sparse but clean medical centre on the farm for a minimum fee. Mostly they’re provided with HIV medication.

In the 1980s AIDS basically wiped out the middle class of many villages in Zambia, crippling society and the economy. Today, 75 per cent of Africa’s population is under the age of 25, and although testing is limited, in many villages the majority of adults is HIV positive.

In Zambia, the average farm worker earns US$100 to $150 a month. Last year the government introduced legislation to raise the minimum wage to 33 kwacha a day, equivalent to US$6/day.

“A loyal, healthy community is essential,” says Rae.

Moving beyond sustenance

In Zambia you not only need resources, you need swagger

At points, the road to Francis Moomga’s 28-cow dairy is barely passable by vehicle. And this is the dry season.

Even so, the milk from this hand-milked herd is delivered daily by ox and cart to a co-operative’s collective milk coolers. The Magoye Smallholders Dairy Farmers Co-operative has 225 active farmers supplying 2,700 litres of milk a day. Twice a day, the members deliver the milk to the collection site from up to 20 km away, mostly by bicycle.

Huge elevators sit idle because the roads connecting them to coastal ports have never been built.
Huge elevators sit idle because the roads connecting them to coastal ports have never been built. photo: Maggie Van Camp

Many small-holding farmers deliver food to markets by bicycling or walking with their wares piled on their heads or in a wheelbarrow. Some emerging farmers have dirt bikes, small cars and trucks. Most of the marketing is done by the men, while the production labour often falls to the women.

Studies have shown that poor road, rail and port facilities add 30 to 40 per cent to the costs of goods traded among African countries.

Beyond the few major highways in this country, the roads are bone-jarringly poor. Only a quarter of Africa’s road network is paved. The newly elected Zambian government is in the process of building 8,000 kms of major throughways and it is establishing private/public partnerships for secondary roads, according to Transport Minister Mukanga.

The harsh reality is that change and construction are excruciatingly slow here, yet so needed. For example, a bridge is being constructed to Botswana, a major trading partner and route to South Africa. Although construction has started, it will be at least a couple of years before this small bridge is complete. Currently the ferry takes transport trucks across the river one at a time, with a four- or five-day wait to cross.

Zambia fell into poverty after international copper prices declined in the 1970s. The socialist regime at the time tried but failed to prop up the country’s economy. The railroad through Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe), stopped construction and it still remains 1,000 km short of the port.

Along this railway line, terminal concrete elevators that were built in the 1960s still sit underutilized. They’re big white-elephant reminders of how building infrastructure doesn’t solve anything if it’s not well thought through, done with integrity, maintained and secure.

The other reality is that building infrastructure to stimulate economic growth only works if it’s complete and if it complements an overall economic plan for the country. In any country, business growth needs a heavy dose of entrepreneurial willpower. But in Africa, it seems, you also need swagger, passion and grit.

Zambian opportunity

Zambia wants to open up 10 farms… 250,000 acres each

The contrasts in Africa vibrate. Red dust savannahs give way to green rivers streaming with life; mud-hut poverty subsists in the midst of copious natural resources; shoppers haggle at markets packed with vegetables while just a few miles away, the hungry wait in lines at desert refugee camps.

More than half of the 10 most unequal countries in the world are in Africa, according to the Gini Coefficient Index, a standard measure of income equality, and that includes Zambia, a place where the disparity in income, production and infrastructure is as wide or wider in agriculture than it is in any other sector.

Food is paramount and precious. One-fifth of Zambia’s GDP and 85 per cent of its jobs are generated by food, fish and forestry. Yet, most farmers are living below the poverty line, only one dry season away from starvation. The vast majority of the over one million farmers in Zambia is self-sustaining on less than a couple of acres, and many are female. The most common farm equipment is the short hoe.

In contrast, commercial-scale farms have technology that meets or surpasses North American norms. Near Zambia’s capital of Lusaka, AGCO, GSI and Bayer have collaborated on an impressive research and demonstration farm to showcase both large and small mechanization, pivot irrigation, storage technology, and crop diversity. AGCO’s senior vice-president and general manager for Europe, Africa and Middle East, Rob Smith, projects his company’s annual sales in this continent will quadruple in about five years to $1 billion.

Everyone seems to agree that the potential is huge. Currently, only 14 per cent of Zambia’s arable land is under cultivation, and the country has access to 40 per cent of the continent’s groundwater.

Now, money is coming into the country to help turn that opportunity into reality.

Zambia is on the cusp of great change with its stable, pro-investment government. “The agriculture sector plays a critical role in the country’s economy. Agriculture could stimulate job creation and enhance rural resilience and break the chain of rural poverty,” says Given Lubinda, minister of agriculture and livestock.

The government goal is to bring 2.5 million acres of land under cultivation in the next 10 years. At the official opening of AGCO’s Future Farm in May, Lubinda announced that 11 parcels, each with 250,000 acres of undeveloped land are being opened up to co-venture with investors. Germans already control one.

The state owns 20 per cent of the land but chieftains control the remaining 80 per cent, called traditional land, distributing leases as they see fit.

In 1995, the Land Act allowed for traditional land to convert to state land with private leaseholds. About 10 per cent of land held under traditional tenure has been privatized. It’s a sign of progress, but the process is slow and bureaucratic. Without title, there’s limited collateral to improve or expand, and little incentive for outside investment.

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Senior Business Editor

Maggie Van Camp

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