Last week, I drove some four hundred kilometres from Harare to Chiredze in the low velds of Zimbabwe bordering South Africa. I was attending the famous sugarcane seminar at Tongaat Estates convened by the Zimbabwe Sugar Institute. This is a seminar where scientists present different scientific findings from years of research centered around the sugar industry with the view to improving productivity and operational efficiency of growers in the sector.
One striking observation I have noted with Zimbabwe, and to some extent Malawi, is that even though their economies are crawling such that you rarely know the currency of that country, they have maintained the systems and have infrastructure in place. For instance, Zimbabwe Sugar Industry (ZSI) is an institution that is run by professionals through loyalties paid by private companies in the sugar industry. A phenomenon we don’t have well established in Zambia except for tobacco and cotton to a smaller extent. In other countries, such institutions are the ones that are involved even in conducting registration research to register certain products to be used on a particular crop in the country unlike us where everything is handled by ZEMA. Anyhow, enough of the regulatory issues as that is a subject for another day and beyond the scope of this article.
Have you ever wondered how important soil is to the livelihood of people and animals? Sometimes, we have ignored how important this resource is and have ended up abusing and misusing the asset. Soil is everything to mankind and Zambians included. In soil, we get minerals that the west Africans are benefiting from in Lufwanyama at our expense; we have the Chinese and Indians that are mining copper, diamond and gold while our own people are left to be moles burrowing in damp sites at black mountain. For many of us, we get our food and livelihood from soil. The civil engineers build different types of structures all from resources taken or mined from the soils. I want to take an agricultural perspective as I discuss this important resource. Not long ago, people used to think we have too much land in this country and they used to practice all forms of destructive land management practices in their quest to produce food such as the chitemene system in the northern part of the country. This is a practice where tree tops and branches were burnt as a form of land clearing. They benefited from the potash accumulation as most lands in that region are acidic, and this made them successfully grow crops such as millet and sorghum in soils that they could not without that farming system. This was alright with them because they could manage to feed themselves but it was or is a practice which is not sustainable. Soil harbours a lot of things that are beneficial to life such as water, oxygen or air, different types of nutrients that are required for effective growth of plants, and most importantly the microorganisms such as the bacteria and fungi which play a very important role in regeneration of the soil. These micro living organisms are the ones that are important in breaking down roots, tree trunks including dead animals such as human beings. Without the bacteria in the soil, dead things that are found in the soil would not decompose and this would be a very big problem for all of us. One of the soil components which is very important for effective plant growth is organic matter. Organic matter is matter that contains a large amount of carbon-based compounds. The largest component of organic matter is dead matter. In soils, dead matter makes up roughly 85% of the organic matter. This includes dead matter, living microbes, and living parts of plants (e.g., roots). Organic matter can be exceedingly beneficial for its nutrient value when incorporated into the soil used by plants. The organic matter serves as a reservoir for plant nutrients and water. When the organic matter further breaks down in a scientific process called mineralisation, it releases nutrients which are made available to the plants. This process is triggered by certain environmental conditions such as warmth, presence of air and water and the microbes. This is the reason we claim that soil is a living asset because the presence of organic matter, microbes, water/air ration being found in the right quantities and mineral elements define good soils from bad ones. Understanding some basics about soils is very important especially now that there is scramble for land in this country where some chiefs have risen against their subjects by selling land that they have lived on for centuries to our foreign brothers such as the Chinese. Our village dwellers mostly depend on soil to grow their food and once you drive them away from land they have owned for ages, it is like sending them away to die a slow agonising death. The unfortunate thing is that it seems people that are supposed to protect them don’t care anymore.
Once you are driven away from the living asset that you have known for ages and are looking for new land, there are certain things that you need to look out for. Some of which are the vegetation, soil depth, easy to get water and most important, rush to the Ministry of Agriculture officials for them to help you determine the suitability of that land for the enterprise you are well known for. Some land may look good with your naked eye but may have a subsurface bedrock at less than a meter depth, and this may be a very big hindrance to grow certain crops. So please look after your soils very well because if your soil is dead, no matter how much fertiliser you apply, you will get nothing. The fertiliser you apply is not taken up in that form you apply it but it is broken down with the help of the living organisms in the soil into plant available form.
And how I wish the weather department could ’emulate’ their colleagues at the Examination Council of Zambia to leak how the rainfall pattern will be this coming season. For now, we call it a day my clansmen but let’s all be geared to produce the first ever bumper harvest of all crops. Zimbabwe and Congo DR will present a market opportunity.
Felix Tembo is an agribusiness management consultant. firstname.lastname@example.org