Taking agriculture as a business in Zambia will NEVER be realised if the strong arm of government continues to interfere in the agriculture sector especially the maize value chain. We know that the government’s role is to create an enabling environment for the private sector in addition to supporting production through the provision of communal extension services to farmers that can’t afford access to consultancy. The government’s fear that if they don’t regulate prices of food commodities, prices might be unbearable for many Zambians, is neither here nor there! The secret lies in improving productivity which will lead to increase production. This also demands a robust marketing system that taps into global markets. The market size in Zambia is too small to assimilate the potential in all value chains; talk of 1.6 million hectares under maize, 240,000 hectares in groundnuts, 280,000 hectares under soybeans and many others. If productivity reached even half of the potential, we could be producing 9.6 million metric tonnes of maize, 360,000 metric tonnes of groundnuts and 840,000 metric tonnes of soybeans. The 18 million Zambians can never consume all this produce. Therefore, we need to tap into the regional markets provided by Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, DR Congo, Kenya, Mozambique and beyond. Let me share some experiences of how the private sector has driven certain commodities in the agricultural sector.
In 2008, while working for a project in Luapula Province, farmers had challenges of where to sell their cassava after the Food Reserve Agency had stopped buying the product. The only market available then was the local market and trading with the Congo DR which was not structured. As a project, we wanted to help and we tried to explore the market opportunities in Angola by sponsoring a local trader to buy 30 metric tonnes and transport it to Angola. The findings were encouraging, the price in that country was almost five times what the local traders were selling at Chisokone market – it was more lucrative. The challenge was the poor road infrastructure into Angola. The truck took about three weeks to get to the destination. On the way, they had to hire smaller trucks (five tonnes) which were transporting the produce into Angola because the bigger truck could not pass. Half of the profits were spent on repairs for the truck as well as paying agents. We had to look for an alternative market, and during my market research, I came across information that SABMiller South Africa was buying cassava in Mozambique and using it in their local brewing of some beer brands. I knew that Mozambique doesn’t grow more cassava than Zambia and yet they are able to access that market. I started communicating with Zambian Breweries. Zambian Breweries introduced me to a person in South Africa and that is how we started talking. The challenge then was the production statistics. In the end, Zambia Breweries set up a plant on the Copperbelt which uses cassava as an input in its brewing of a local brand. What this has culminated into is that it has provided a market opportunity for more than 20,000 farmers in Luapula Province. There is currently an out-grower arrangement that is ongoing with farmers from that province. What this entail is that the challenges of the markets that the cassava farmers used to face will no longer be there. This will lead to improving productivity as they are exposed to modern technologies. Such models can be replicated in the maize value chain as well. Another success that we have achieved as the country is in the soybean value chain. In 2019, I happened to be in Harare when there were riots in Zimbabwe because of the shortages of certain commodities like cooking oil. One of the brands that the consumers were lining up to buy was cooking oil from Zambia (I was elated).
The government of Zambia had put restrictions to the importation of finished cooking oil which mostly used to come from the Far East through East Africa. The government also banned the exportation of soybean grain. However, one can export soycake and cooking oil. In a short period of time, this led to the expansion in the crushing capacity in the country. The trickle-down effect was that small-scale farmers started to grow soybeans which were a preserve of commercial farmers. We have become self-sufficient in cooking oil, stock feed production and other soya products. This is exactly what we need to do with maize. The government has banned maize grain export but I see a lot of Ama sipsip Maheu going to Malawi, Mozambique, DR Congo and Zimbabwe. We can easily work out a system of how the government can be exporting maize products without having shortages in the country. You might ask as to why the private sector has not taken up the challenge to invest in the maize value addition beyond mealie meal milling. Business is supposed to be predictable and it must be a going concern. Many people fear to go into maize business because it is a commodity that has a lot of political interference and machinations. Politicians in Zambia use maize as a ‘cash cow’ in politics. We have explained this in detail in the book ‘A Guide to Agribusiness in Zambia: Untapped Opportunities’. Kenneth Kaunda lost power in 1990 because of maize but that does not mean it is a commodity that cannot be sorted out. The problem is that some of those that have taken to be our leaders are lazy; they don’t want to think and worse off they don’t take advice from the technocrats. We, as a people, also have a tendency or propensity to choosing leaders that are blank and sometimes greedy. The other time, I was listening to the youth policy that [president Levy] Mwanawasa was trying to implement through Zambia National Service, and wondered why subsequent governments abandoned that brilliant idea. We could not be talking about 95 per cent unemployment if we had continued with that idea.
Zambia has so many brilliant brains lying idle to be grappling with a sustainable policy of maize for 50 years. It is time we did the right thing now. Honestly, we have become so lazy to even raise $2.5 million to invest in gold mining and processing. This is an opportunity that we have to empower Zambians; float 20,000 shares on the stock market to be bought by Zambians and you will raise more than $10 million. Do away with the Sudanese, they already have oil for God’s sake!