Zambia seeks better food security

"Being a farmer in Zambia is one of the most difficult things," says Joyce Habeenzu, a retired civil servant.

"Most of the roads in Zambia are impassable during the rainy season. That means we can't take our produce to the market."

Her business is suffering because of problems with Zambia's infrastructure, which includes poor storage facilities and because she has to pay high interest rates to the bank when she needs to borrow money.

"When I am buying a cow, I have to pay a quarter of its total cost to the banks," she says.

"That is unacceptable."

Wasted resources

But in spite of such problems, many people would have liked to do what Mrs Habeenzu and her husband are doing.

The Habeenzus used to work for the government, but after more than a decade as civil servants they retired and were forced to find other ways to make a living.

Farming ranked first on their wishlist.

The couple relocated to the countryside east of Lusaka in the Chalimbana area - a journey that is supposed to take 20 minutes from the centre of town.

But reaching the Habeenzu's dairy farm takes about an hour because the road there is a pot-holed gravel road that branches off the highway.

Change of direction

Zambia is a nation with a healthy agricultural sector.

The country has some of the best land and water endowments in Africa, though only some 15% of it is cultivated and a similar portion is actually irrigated, experts say.

Critics insist agricultural sector has long been neglected at the expense of mining, the country's economic mainstay which accounts for 70% of foreign exchange earnings.

But when seen with domestic eyes, agriculture is more important. he agricultural sector contributes about 20% to the country's economic output whereas mining accounts for just less than 10%.

In terms of earnings power for Zambian nationals, the earnings from agriculture are also much more important since most of the mines are in foreign hands so their profits are often shipped out of the country.

This, along with the mining sector's volatile nature, has led the government to consider alternatives in order to reduce its reliance on mining.

At the centre of this effort is a plan to stimulate the agricultural sector to create jobs, to achieve food security and to bolster small farmers such as Joyce Habeenzu.

Challenges ahead

Image caption Infrastructure needs to be improved to help farmers benefit more

Zambia's agriculture minister Peter Daka notes that bank interest rates continue to be high in the country, a situation that has made it difficult for productive sectors such as agriculture to grow.

"How will a small-scale farmer manage with these high interest rates?" he says.

"The challenge for us all is how to stimulate the small-scale farmers and private partnerships.

"We need to weigh the pro's and con's of what a peasant farmer needs to graduate to commercial farming," he says.

Food basket

Perhaps banks have a solid case for charging high interest rates?

Agriculture remains the single most risky lending sector for the commercial banks, with non-performing loans in the sector estimated to be about 37%, compared with 13% across other sectors, according to a recent report on Zambia's agricultural finance market commissioned by Zambia National Farmers Union.

Terry Wyer of the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank, has been working with local farmers.

He says there is a need to equip farmers with training and to enable them have access to finance and better priced fertilizer and quality pesticides.

"Not only do you need production to increase but also the market place services to be there for agriculture to be successful in Zambia," he says.

Peter Cottan, the president of the Millers Association of Zambia, believes the country has the potential to become the region's food basket and points out that it currently produces more food than it consumers.

"We have to change our mind set, open up our boarders and have congenuity on exports," he says.

"You cannot turn the tap on and off. When you go into a market, you must maintain the supply into that market."