Zambia’s agriculture is mainly focused on field crop production. The main crops grown are maize, cassava, soybeans, wheat, sunflower, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes and vegetables. Of late, we have seen an increased production in rice and aquaculture. It is no longer a secret that this year’s maize and soybean production will go down drastically. In many parts of the country there will be acute shortage of the grain and in such instances, people tend to resort to eating foodstuffs that they don’t normally eat just to remain alive. It is not very long ago when we were made to eat yellow maize (1992) because of the drought that hit the country in 1991/92 growing season. However, one crop that I know will record higher production will be cassava. This is because the crop is predominantly cultivated in the northern regions of the country such as Luapula, Northern and Muchinga provinces as well as the northern districts of Central Province such as Serenje and Chitambo. People of these regions have been eating cassava as the staple food for ages now.
This is a crop which is easy to produce as it has less requirements than maize. For instance, cassava can grow in poor soils as long as they are well drained. It does not do well in poorly drained soils and it can grow even in regions with modest rainfall or poorly distributed. It is one of the few crops that can grow in a wide range of rainfall from 500mm to about 5000mm annually. This means that the crop can grow in all the agroecological regions of Zambia. It is a most efficient producer of carbohydrates and can grow in soil pH ranging from 3.8 to 7.8. However, it stops growing when temperatures fall below 10oC and the roots do not tolerate freezing temperatures. Amongst the latest varieties bred at root and tuber team in Msekera, Kasama and Solwezi research stations, we have varieties that can mature in 12 to 18 months as opposed to the traditional varieties that used to take 24 months. Additionally, these new varieties have been bred with very low levels of cyanogenic glucosides; meaning they are sweet and less toxic.
Luapula Province grows a lot of cassava and in 2008, while working with the Ministry of Agriculture, we were faced with a challenge of finding the market for the farmers. Though we knew that there is a great informal trade that happens between Zambia and Congo DR, we endeavored to find alternative market opportunities that would be formalised through Angola. The price was very good then, about thrice what was being offered at Chisokone market, but the biggest challenge was the road infrastructure and language barrier. Later, towards the fall of 2009, I opened communication with Zambian Breweries then upon stumbling on a piece of information that Cassava was used in the brewing industry in Mozambique. This effort culminated later in the company taking it on as a raw material in their business and this has provided great market opportunities for the farmers. Nonetheless, I feel that we have an opportunity to stir up local trade for the product this year. We are likely to face a shortage of maize grain. I feel organisations like CEEC can deliberately support a project or company that would be willing to go into large scale production of flour from cassava which could be sold as well as given by government as relief food in areas of shortages. I believe that once this is done for a year, this company that can be established can look for other opportunities in the region like Congo and Angola. I know that we have signed treaties such as the WTO’s TFA, but I guess this is a way of facilitating trade for the cassava products. I believe this will be a better alternative to those plastic milling plants we have established in the rural areas that are now ‘white hippos’. We need to start planning because production of maize is becoming a big problem, especially that for over thirty years, we have only managed to improve our productivity from 1.2mt/ha to a partly 2.0mt/ha. With the ever-rising input costs for maize production, the gross profits are reducing while the break-even yield is shifting from 5mt to 6mt. Last week, the European Union (EU) representative announced that the EU is going to give a grant to Zambia of US$36million to support agricultural value chains in the smallholder sector. What was so exciting to me is that this money will be channeled through the private sector. This is the only way we will ensure sustainability of such activities if we put the private sector at the centre stage of industrialising the agribusiness sector. My prayer is that the bulk of this fund should go into promoting manufacturing and value addition as opposed to production. When he announced this funding, the first thing that clicked in my mind was value addition in cassava for export to Congo and Angola. I am looking forward to having coffee with Hon Katambo and Madam Siame from MCTI as well as ZDA and CEEC staff to develop this thought further. By the way my book on agribusiness in Zambia is out; you can buy it online from Amazon and efforts are being made to have it in our bookstores.
The author is the Agribusiness Development Consultant, email@example.com/SM