Buya Bamba, Zambia’s largest potato producer, has announced that their US$7 million new factory in Lusaka, which was built over the last three years, has been completed and will be commissioned soon.

The new factory will be the first of its kind, and it is expected to reduce frozen chip imports from South Africa, resulting in forex savings for the Zambian economy. Zambia lacked a commercial frozen chip plant, resulting in frozen chip imports.

Company Managing Director Anthony Barker said that the commissioning of the factory would enable the company to supply potatoes to fast food chains such as Hungry Lion that had previously been importing frozen chips.

When asked about the market sentiment that his company has been restricting seed access to control the local market, Barker told ZBT that seed potatoes are perishable products and cannot be kept in a warehouse for long, therefore they are kept in a cold store.

So there has been some misunderstanding when people are making orders, at times, our Lusaka warehouse may have run out and the orders can only be fulfilled by getting the seed potatoes from our Mbala cold stores.

Baker stated that Buya Bamba can supply the potatoes once orders are placed and when the seedlings are available. He noted that it also depends on order sizes, noting that certain quantities can be readily available, so those interested should proceed to make orders, even farmers who are not buying in bulk have access to seed potatoes.

He further stated that Zambia has peculiar weather, “unlike other countries that have more than one potato growing season, Zambia only has one season when seed potatoes are planted which is after the rainy season. Moreover, Zambia’s potato industry is in its infancy, overproduction or underproduction can destroy this industry overnight, therefore an estimated number is grown to avoid wastage and losses”.

He said the company estimates its orders for the next year and grows a quantity that the Zambian market can buy because the seed has to be kept in cold stores, which are capital intensive to put up, adding that the seed potato product also has a limited lifespan in the storage facility to avoid compromising the quality.

He said the planting of seed potatoes is mostly done in Mbala around May-June, which are the coldest months and harvested in September adding that Mbala is a good place to grow the seed crop specifically because of the appropriate height of the land, temperature and being isolated from other agricultural areas, so viruses or diseases found close to Lusaka or other areas cannot attack the crop.

Baker explained that once the seed is harvested, variables such as the seed cleaning and quality controls are put in place before it is put in a cold store.

“Seed will only be available in November because now is our window period when we are growing it. We cannot store it for a long time, so from November to December we load our cold store and release the seed to the market”, he said.

Barker said selling of seed begins in November-December because farmers with no or limited irrigation cannot plant later than January as the crop takes about four months to mature, so if farmers plant in January or February, they will need irrigation by the time the crop matures.

“When they come to buy the seed, we advise them to say, do you have irrigation, if yes, how much hectarage do you have, if they don’t have irrigation, we advise them to plant certain varieties or not to plant at all as they will lose money because it won’t mature”.

We have seed available for anyone who wants when they make an order, we will bring it from the cold store. Otherwise, if we bring it in advance and wait for customers, the seed will get spoilt and we will have to be thrown away ”, he said.

He noted that some varieties allow farmers to plant late and harvest early as they grow quickly, farmers can plant in January, and the potatoes can grow after four months taking advantage of the rainy season.

He said some commercial farmers plant in winter as they have irrigation while other varieties do well in the rainy season, noting that specific varieties are grown for specific uses such as for crisps and other varieties are grown for making chips or table potatoes.

When asked what Investments are needed to make Zambia self-sufficient in potato production and even become a net export, Baker said that there is a need to invest in more cold storage facilities if there is to be a supply of potatoes all year round, adding that the company experiences supply challenges in March to May when there are not enough potatoes available.

Barker further said  that with more people consuming potatoes, the demand has increased and the current national consumption is around 120,000 metric tonnes annually, adding that some potatoes from Tanzania also come into the country unnoticed.

He mentioned that population growth and urbanisation have also contributed to more people moving towards consuming potatoes which have also caused various fast food businesses to grow, noting that an additional 10,000 metric tonnes of demand are being added annually.

On the issue of expanding production through an outgrowing scheme for local farmers, Baker stated that financing outgrower schemes has been a challenge and the company tried it in the past but it was not successful. The company experienced various challenges and did not yield expected results.

To expand national production, Baker stated that there is a need to identify areas where potatoes grow with little to no challenges and have various farmers grow the crop there, adding that having a centralised place where farmers take all their produce, which Buya Bamba could do on behalf of the farmers, would help increase production.

He mentioned that the company is having discussions with various stakeholders to have similar crops taken to a central point because as long as individual farmers do it on their own and find a market in places like Soweto, they will experience challenges.

He emphasized that irrigation is important for potatoes as they can best be grown in one season and this affects their prices when demand for the products becomes too high. When asked to give an estimate of capital needed to engage in winter Potato cultivation, Baker estimated that one would require about US$10,000 to grow a hectare of potatoes as they require high input.

“Limiting factors of small scale farmers is access to the formal market, small scale farmers grow their potatoes during the rainy season, so they have to clean their products and sometimes don’t have proper cleaning equipment and the formal sector requires a certain quality standard, so with the coming of the factory, the produce will go straight for processing”, he said.

He mentioned that the company has heavily invested in the potato industry in order to make the country’s potato production sustainable, adding that Buya Bamba has invested in over 30,000 tonnes of cold storage facilities In Zambia.