2018 will be a difficult year for Zambian agriculture, but its fundamental potential to be the breadbasket of Southern Africa remains, argues Zuneid Yousuf
Zambia has great potential to be the breadbasket of Southern Africa. During the extreme El Niño drought of 2015-2016, Zambia successfully yielded a food surplus and exported vital produce to neighbouring countries in need. Prolonged dry spells between November 2017 and January 2018 mean this year’s maize crop will be less, but despite this the carryover stock of maize totals 844,200 tons, leaving an exportable surplus of 341,300 tons.
Zambia has an arable land mass greater than the United Kingdom and its agricultural land is highly fertile. In normal circumstances, there is a consistent abundance of water that provides the perfect conditions for a thriving agricultural industry, which provides for the people of Zambia and its neighbouring countries.
Feeding a rapidly growing African population – set to reach nearly 2.5 billion people by 2050 – while dealing with the detrimental effects of climate change is a common challenge. Luckily, Zambia is at the forefront of an agri-revolution that aims to address these complex and interconnected problems.
‘Super crops’ have the potential to revolutionise agriculture in Africa. Imagine rice which can live submerged underwater for two weeks, or iron-rich beans that can withstand temperature changes of four degrees. What about drought-resistant maize rich in vitamins and minerals? These new crops are having a significant impact on food production in a challenging environment. They also counter the ‘hidden hunger’ of micronutrient-malnutrition, which is important in a country where 40% of the population are at risk of stunted growth.
British Prime Minister Theresa May announced on her recent visit to Africa that the UK Department for International Development will provide £55m to support the work of the Africa Agriculture Development Company (AgDevCos) in countries that include Zambia. This will enable smallholder farmers to diversify their crops, and this investment comes on the back of $100m already invested in super crops research.
Companies like Neira’s Investments, a business specialising in the supply of fertiliser to the Zambian market, will hopefully take super crops to the market. As the Chairman and Director of MBI Group, which includes Neira’s Investments as one of its companies, I look forward to working with scientists, entrepreneurs and policy makers to ensure these innovations support a prosperous and sustainable agricultural sector in Zambia.
Zambia’s lush forest ecosystems contributes over a billion dollars to its national economy, providing 1.4 million jobs and supporting 60% of rural Zambian households. Because of this vital role, Zambia has launched a new $33 million project to improve sustainable rural livelihoods and forest protection. The Zambia Integrated Forest Landscape Program, delivered in collaboration with the World Bank, will improve the way communities use and manage their land to increase agricultural productivity. Ensuring that Zambia’s green lungs are preserved will also give us a fighting chance of halting climate change and its terrible impacts on harvests.
New technology and data-driven farming will change the face of agriculture. There are 12 million mobile phone service subscribers in Zambia, equivalent to about 70 percent of the population. Zamtel, the state telecoms company, hopes to more than double its mobile phone subscribers in the next three years after investing $300 million in new infrastructure.
So, imagine. You receive an SMS message telling you precise moisture content measurements, soil quality indicators, required fertilizer levels, weather forecasts and optimum plough times. These messages would also give you advice on how to make long term plans in difficult seasons. This is exactly the technology being pioneered by Kenyan entrepreneurs through the Digital Agriculture Platform, and should be rolled out in Zambia.
US tech start-up BanQu has developed blockchain technology to empower people in the poorest parts of the world to find economic opportunities that are otherwise impossible. In June 2018, BanQu worked with Zambian Breweries to connect 2,000 Zambian farmers to the mobile platform as they harvested and sold a projected 2,000 tons of cassava. This crop is used to produce the high-quality starch used in beer, and the blockchain technology meant farmers had a direct link with higher rungs of the value chain. The technology strengthens partnerships across crops and countries, establishing long-term, sustainable and responsible supply chains that benefit small-scale farmers.
Clearly, there are ongoing challenges for Southern African agriculture sector, not least from climate change. But through innovation and entrepreneurship, we can increase the yield and productivity of the Zambian agricultural sector. This not only makes the Zambian economy more dynamic, it also ensures we produce enough food to meet the needs of a growing population. These innovations will make Zambia the breadbasket of Southern Africa.