Kenya’s Agriculture Minister Mithika Linturi and his Zambian counterpart Mtolo Phiri signed an MoU in March to herald a new era of large-scale farming of maize in Zambia for export to Nairobi, but concerns by the opposition over past treatment of locals raise fears about the deal.
Kenyan representatives had first come to Lusaka looking to import about 1 million tonnes of white maize to meet its national deficit.
Zambia could not meet Kenya’s immediate grain requirements but offered between 20,000 hectares to 40,000 hectares for growing the crop for the Kenyan market.
The agreement would allow Zambian farmers to grow maize for exclusive export to Kenya after the country suffered its sixth consecutively failed rainy season.
Noel Simukonde, a smallholder farmer on the outskirts of the capital Lusaka, says the MoU with Kenya could help Zambia ramp up crop output and elevate most farmers from poverty.
Solution to food insecurity
The country’s agriculture remains a largely subsistent undertaking dominated by government support to more than 1 million smallholders growing maize for food security, providing them with seeds and fertilizer.
However, the country still prevents exports, so maize and maize flour, or mealie meal, is smuggled out of Zambia, where the price is better.
Despite enjoying favorable climatic conditions for growing crops such as maize, wheat, and soya beans, Zambia has one of the most underutilized arable lands in Africa. According to official statistics, only 7 million out of 45 million hectares of arable land is currently under cultivation for a country that is 75 million hectares in size.
As adverse weather patterns continue to ravage Southern and East African regions, pulverizing crops and livestock production, Zambia is fast becoming a key source of grain and livestock feed.
Boost to trade deals.
Zambia sold maize to South Sudan for the first time, underlining the vast expanding market as the scarcity of grain increases across the continent.
Initially, Zambia was looking for large-scale domestic farmers to meet the maize requirements for Kenya. Still, according to Minister Linturi, Kenyan farmers will start farming in the Southern African country.
The arrival of Kenyan farmers could help to spur maize production in Zambia through the transfer of technologies. Experts say this could potentially bring the same success as wheat grown by white farmers fleeing land brawls in Zimbabwe and declining water availability in South Africa.
“This MoU could be an opportunity for Zambia,” Isaac Mwaipopo, head of the policy think tank, Centre for Trade Policy and Development (CTPD), tells The Africa Report.
“Even if people are raising eyebrows…if you look at the production of wheat, from the time we had most of those farmers migrating from Zimbabwe to Zambia, the production of wheat has more than doubled,” Mwaipopo adds.
According to the influential Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU), about 300 commercial farmers, 90% of who fled Zimbabwe’s land wrangles, have helped Zambia lift wheat production to about 450,000tn from around 60,000tn in 2010.
Speaking to The Africa Report, ZNFU says that more Zambian farmers are increasing hectarage and output but gives no indication if this is due to a technology transfer.
Apart from wheat, Zimbabwean farmers are also vital to producing high-value crops, some of which are exported to China and Europe.
There is general optimism about the possible arrival of Kenyan farmers as this is expected to bolster Zambia’s push to commit to the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) by raising the production of critical grains such as maize, wheat, and soya beans.
Zambia’s most significant agricultural product market remains the densely populated Democratic Republic of Congo, although the trade remains largely informal.
Zambia is pushing for foreign investment in farming that could see investors from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Germany, and Rwanda comes in to help accelerate the development of the farms.
Chinese farmers are active in Zambia at almost every production level, including chicken rearing, which previously led to clashes with local subsistence poultry farmers.
But even as the country pushes for more foreign participation, concerns the country could be ceding land to foreigners are beginning to mount.
Fear of foreigners?
“A man will fight his neighbor as a result of the neighbor encroaching even one foot into his land, and in your case, you want to give away 20,000 hectares which is equivalent to 200 square kilometers,” Chishala Kateka, leader of the opposition New Heritage Party, tells The Africa Report.
“What will be grown in Zambia by the Kenyans will be exported back to Kenya, and what will happen to the proceeds? Will these be sent back to Zambia, or will they most likely remain in Kenya, with only a small fraction coming back to pay the meager salaries and taxes as is the case in the mining sector,” adds Kateka, who was the sole female candidate in the August 2021 general election.
Zambian authorities are determined to boost agriculture productivity by attracting foreign capital by targeting countries looking for farming land. However, the government is looking into a case in Mumbwa, 150km west of Lusaka, where Chinese Investors allegedly displaced more than 2,000 people after buying land from local chiefs without the knowledge of the ancestral owners of the land.
Other incidents include people who have been denied access to their land and resources by foreign companies, including a recent problem in Mumbwa, against the German agribusiness company.
Zambia’s heavy indebtedness has hindered the completion of key infrastructure projects in 10 farming plots in the country. Authorities want to bank on foreign capital to revive the push for commercial farming.
Phiri tells The Africa Report that Zambia needs foreign investors to help develop the 100,000-hectare plots to increase employment, especially among the rural population.
He says Zambia needs to embrace foreign investors without discrimination, including farmers, whose investments are treated as foreign direct investment.
“We don’t need to have a phobia about the farmers when they come. We should be able to absorb [them] because that is what Zambia needs,” says Phiri.
Zambia’s market-oriented President, Hakainde Hichilema, who was elected in 2021, wants to transform the country into a net grain exporter to create jobs and boost foreign exchange receipts.
Hichilema said foreigners sneaking into the country to buy maize needed to be reclassified as “customers” and not as “smugglers.”
“We are going to keep our borders open for export – we need jobs, and we need our farmers to get a higher return for their product,” Hichilema said, adding that Zambia needs predictable policy practices in growing and trading in crops.