My Visit To Zambia: A Country Full Of Challenges And Opportunities

Ertharin Cousin, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme, has just finished a three-day visit to Zambia. After meeting President Edgar Lungu, Vice President Inonge Wina and key ministers, she travelled to the food-producing south which is experiencing the second consecutive season of erratic rain, most recently due to the effects of El Niño. There she met smallholder farmers, private sector entrepreneurs as well as local community partners and government officials who shared their insights about the challenges and opportunities.  

Bishop Mweene had a smile on his face when I met him at his homestead in Sikwale. Shortly before my arrival, it had rained for the first time in weeks. In fact, he was able to tell me just how much because, in his maize field, he has a manual rain gauge, one of four that WFP has installed on farms in the area.

Bishop Siwale Mweene (l) - Lead Farmer; Mr. Nervous Nsansaula, DAPP Coordinator; Ms. Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director World Food Programme; ;Mr. Allan Mukando WFP Head of VAM and Ms. Elise Sorensen - DAPP MD during the visit to the R4/CASU beneficiaries in Jamba Village.Photo:Enoch Kavindele

Bishop (a smallholder farmer, not a man of the cloth) has a large family – several wives and 23 children. He keeps various animals and tends fields producing maize, beans and cow peas, not just for home consumption but also for sale. This year, however, he is unlikely to have much to sell. Because of the lack of rain, his maize – which should be chest height at this time of year – is only up to his knees. 

Photo:Enoch Kavindele

Bishop showed me a demonstration plot where he shares tips on climate-smart agriculture with other farmers – how to improve soil condition, harvest rainwater and boost fertility. This is all part of an initiative called Conservation Agriculture Scale-Up (CASU) being pioneered by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization with support from Zambia’s Ministry of Agriculture. 

Bishop is one of 500 CASU farmers currently being supported by WFP so they can become better able to withstand extreme weather shocks and improve their livelihoods. We call the project R4. Participating smallholders who practice conservation agriculture qualify to join savings groups and secure preferential credit. Crucially, they receive insurance cover which, in the event of crop failure, guarantees pay-outs triggered by satellite climate data.

Chris Nikoi (l) Regional Director WFP; Ms. Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director World Food Programme listen to Dr. Durton Nanja, Provincial Meteorological Officer at the R4 automated weather station at the Kanchomba Farming Institute. Photo:Enoch Kavindele

A strong need for crop diversification

Several people I met, among them entrepreneurs in Southern Province, told me the same thing: this country really needs crop diversification – not just maize but other crops which have shorter growing periods, need less water and are more nutritious. It’s not going to be easy because maize is the staple and, traditionally, the government has not only subsidized production but also provided an attractive market for it. 

But that’s beginning to change. In Monze, the main town in the area that I visited, I met an agri-services representative now redeeming government-issued e-vouchers. Using these, farmers can choose whatever seeds and inputs they want. What’s more, smallholders like Bishop seem to be coming round to the advantages of diversification. The clincher is that a bag of cow peas can fetch twice the price of a bag of maize.

Dr. Durton Nanja, Provincial Meteorological Office; Ms. Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director World Food Programme and Chris Nikoi (l) Regional Director WFP at the R4 automated weather station at the Kanchomba Farming Institute. Photo:Enoch Kavindele

WFP Innovations for zero hunger

Zambia offers us a good example of the tools and innovations that WFP can offer smallholder farmers to address short-term challenges and grasp longer-term opportunities. We at WFP don’t pretend to have all the answers. What I do know is that smallholders like Bishop are key to achieving food security in Africa and linking them to predictable and sustainable markets is the way forward.

That’s why WFP is joining leading public and private sector organisations to implement what we call the Patient Procurement Platform (“patient” because agri-buyers and other players in the value chain are investing in commitments to farmers that are long-term).

From small seeds grow great things. The process has already started in Zambia where WFP is connecting multi-national buyers to emerging farmers, signing harvest contracts with them before they have planted. I like to think that, one day, Bishop will be among them.