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Zambia has huge agricultural potential

Zambia is 1,200 km wide and 600 km high, the country is 75 Mha in size and is likely 85% arable. This is three times the SW farmland of Western Australia and it has 3-4 times the yield potential. This is not including the irrigation potential. The soil is mostly deep loams with mild acidic soil, good annual rainfall (700-1,300 mm, less in the S) and modest natural NPKS soil nutrient levels. There is ample lime and it has huge potential for irrigation. Zambia has cool and dry winters (May-Oct) that could grow any cool season crop (with irrigation). There are almost no frosts in winter and none in spring. Zambia can rapidly improve and expand its agriculture. Elevation is typically 1,200 m above sea level and latitude varies from 8 to 18 degrees South.

I am excited for the potential for agriculture in Zambia. There are some strong and useful regulations with tax exemption for several years for a new investor farming business. However, the (now past) government subsidises fertilisers for small farmers and also holds the price of maize down. The current price is only $US110/t and restricts exports. Such interference makes maize growing hardly profitable, and one way around this is to put the crop into animals. Further biotech is not been favoured – but that could change as Malawi is demonstrating them this year and this may inspire Zambians to adopt and Zambia just elected a new President (HH). Biotech (RR and Bt) would revolutionise crop production as weeds are the main yield limiting factor and armyworm makes the maize toxic and farmers reliant on insecticides.

The use of no-till is limited. Farmers often think that you the soil can only support cropping for three years then it needs a rest. However, with no-till we know that this is not true. Experience tells us globally that with no-till the soil will keep getting better with time. If all the tools of Smart Farming were adopted, Zambia will become “grain storage central”. The winter temperatures range from 10-25C which is perfect for irrigation and winter crops. In the summer of Nov-April warm season crops can be grown. Warm season crops can even be grown in the winter (although slowly) and so can so many horticultural crops.

Technology Exists on small scale

Pleasingly, there is good access to South Africa suppliers of fertilisers, herbicides, agricultural machinery and also genetics. Most small local Zambian farmers with 2-20 ha that I have talked to use fertilisers and pesticides – they are less influenced by French NGO’s given that they speak English. I feel quite at home with Zambian food and infrastructure.

Charcoal destroys forests and creates weeds

The main cooking and heating for Zambians is from charcoal – it has been a cheap and a logical source of energy for thousands of years. But the forests are being stripped of the old large trees which will never be replaced. This also removes wildlife habitat and creates a vacuum for weeds to invade. Nature hates a vacuum! So, weeds do abound and weed seed banks are huge, so farmers use tillage and glyphosate pre-sowing and delay seeding to give the in-crop herbicide some chance of a result. Despite this, I have yet to see a small-holder farmers field look weed tidy.

If people were consistent about their concern for global warming I would think that they would discourage Africans from burning charcoal and expand hydro and gas energy technologies.

Imagine residue retention, biotech and no-till?

There are many ex Zimbabwean farmers who are doing a good job at crop agronomy and are achieving good yields, but they too could be better. Conversely the small-holder average maize yield is about 1.3 t/ha and the soy yield is near 0.7 t/ha. Crop yields are damaged by tillage, depleted soil organic matter, no residue, weeds and poor soil structure and soil health. Imagine what removing these restrictions would do and then feeding the crops?

The future for farming here is largely untapped. Smart farming would clean up grassy areas that now burn every year. The energy from the grass could rather feed the soil, which would improve air and soil quality and farming productivity. The 70% of Zambians that currently farmer small areas could have their standard of living lifted and there would be no need for NGO’s and other nations to “invest” (or colonise) and try to influence Zambian national policies and businesses.

Imagine a Farming Heaven?

If John Lennon was an agronomist he would likely re-write his song; “Imagine” the potential. I do not believe that the local population realises their potential. The opportunity for food exports or African food security is a genuine reality here in Zambia.

The plan for Arise African Agriculture, through the Zambian Institute of Agriculture and investors, is to argue for all tools to be made available, provide partial funding and knowledge to put local small holder farmers into co-ops and ensure they have skin in the game. Such commitment is vital, as is noble leadership and I have met many such people who could Chair such co-ops. The future is exciting and with a few tweaks great things are possible for Zambian agriculture and people empowerment.

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