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Zambia has high rates of poverty, especially in rural areas. Despite a decade of economic growth, poverty has not significantly reduced mainly due to a stagnant agriculture sector, rural/urban inequality and chronic undernutrition. Improved infrastructure and capacities and access to technologies and credit would transform the livelihoods of smallholder farmers as well as boost the country’s food security.

3 out of 4 -  Zambians live in poverty

More than 50% - Zambians are undernourished

14% - HIV/AIDS prevalence in Zambia

1/3 - Average yields of most crops in Zambia compared to the global average


General context

Zambia is a landlocked country situated on the southern central African plateau with an area of approximately 750,000 square km. It has a population of 13 million people, most of who depend on agriculture for their  income, employment and food. Despite this, less than 20% of GDP comes from agriculture.  Zambia has high rates of poverty, especially in rural areas.

Presently, three out of four Zambians live in poverty and more than half of them are unable to meet their minimum nutritional needs. In rural parts of the country, about 83% of the inhabitants are poor, and 71% of them are extremely poor.

Although the country has experienced a decade of economic growth, this has not had much impact on reducing poverty mainly due to a stagnant agriculture sector, rural/urban inequality and chronic undernutrition.

The climate is tropical, with cooler temperatures at higher altitudes. Increasing rainfall variability and drought periods have limited Zambia's agricultural growth over the last decade since most crop production is rainfed.

The country's main food crops are maize, sorghum, cassava and millet. Cash crops, including cotton, tobacco and vegetables, are gaining importance. Productivity of most staple crops has been stagnant. 

Agriculture in Zambia

Smallholder farmers in Zambia find the going tough due to lack of infrastructure and capacities as well as access to technologies and credit. Key issues affecting Zambian agriculture include:

  • Low productivity
  • Inadequate government investment in agriculture
  • Poor infrastructure
  • Seasonal variability
  • Limited areas of cultivation.

Most smallholder farmers cultivate less than 2 hectares of land and have very low productivity.

Smallholder farming in Zambia is dominated by maize, which is grown by 80% of all smallholders. Yet they suffer from low returns.  Most smallholders produce only 1 ton of maize/ha while the national average productivity in a very good year is 2 tons/ha. Only 2% of the farmers contribute to 50% of the marketed maize. Agriculture policies favor high dependence on maize with a large part of public spending going toward maize production and marketing; thus favoring wealthier farmers who produce a marketable surplus.

Production levels in Zambia vary considerably, but even in years of bumper harvests, not all household needs are met. In average years, 60% of farmers face a hungry season for several months, which is particularly acute during November, December, January and February.

Key donors working on agricultural development in Zambia

There are 12 donors actively involved in supporting agriculture in Zambia. These include the United States, African Development Bank (AFDB), Sweden, Norway, UK, Japan, Finland, The World Bank and the UN system (IFAD and FAO). USAID/Zambia currently chairs the agriculture donor working group with the European Union (EU) and AFDB.

The Government, FAO, Farmer's Union, and the donor community all agree that a more productive, inclusive and sustainable agriculture sector is needed. The EU considers this a core sector in 2014-2020. Conservation agriculture (techniques which protect the soil while increasing crop yield) will be an important component of future support.

Working with the government and national partners

In Zambia, as in most African countries, agricultural subsidies are common. Zambia spends 90% of its agricultural budget on subsidies but this has not had the desired impact on rural poverty.

A report by the German Development Insitute found that the government's agricultural policies failed to reduce poverty even though they focused on smallholder farmers. It questions the nature of subsidies and the way these are delivered. The fact that the policy and support favour maize means that farmers continue to grow maize in areas that are not suited to it, leading to poor yields, production risks and soil degradation due to maize monoculture farming systems.

Health is another issue. HIV/AIDS' prevalence is high (14%) and sickness leads to less labour force in the fields and lower productivity. Agricultural reforms are needed to make agriculture less labour intensive as well as to ease the work burden on the remaining family members. Gender issues also need to be addressed to improve agricultural productivity. They need better access to land, credit and technologies as well as support to care for sick family members.

Aflatoxin mitigation in maize and groundnuts

Maize and groundnut are highly prone to aflatoxin contamination. Aflatoxins are a major worry because of their acute and chronic ill effects on the health of humans and domesticated animals. Aflatoxin contamination also limits international trade because of food quality and safety issues.

Community seed banks to give access to improved crop varieties: This is an approach where smallholder farmers get a seed loan which they pay back (in seeds) to the local farmers club or group. These are then given to a new set of farmers or club, helping promote better yielding varieties in the region.

Conservation agriculture: Given the importance of conservation farming in Eastern Zambia, ICRISAT is testing whether basin planting and minimum tillage and mulching are compatible with groundnut production. On-farm testing is being carried out together with farmers to seek their feedback. Research will identify practical difficulties when managing and harvesting the crop in these tillage systems.

Linking farmers to markets :

  • Crop improvement will deliver products that increase productivity and give higher quality groundnuts with market-acceptable traits that help producers and traders to tap into regional and international markets.
  • Marketing innovations that emphasize on efficiency and less transaction costs. Grain marketing will be improved by strengthening farmer organizations to help establish rural collection points. This will improve collective marketing, grain assembly and quality management due to the adherence to grades and standards as demanded by niche markets. The gains in market efficiency and reduced transactions costs will lead to higher grain prices for producers, resulting in increased incomes for rural households.

The Eastern Province Farmers’ Cooperative (EPFC) is working closely with ICRISAT and is for the first time exporting groundnuts to South Africa. By September 2013, the cooperative had exported 120 million tons of groundnuts. This is partly due to ICRISAT’s support with shellers, improved varieties, and, more recently, reducing aflatoxin contamination.

ICRISAT research in Zambia

I-FINITE - Improving groundnut Farmers' Incomes and Nutrition through Innovation and Technology Enhancement

Though maize dominates cultivated land, groundnut is an important nutrient-rich staple and income-generating legume crop in Zambia. The Eastern Province of Zambia is the largest producer of groundnuts in the country, with about 50,000 metric tons being produced in 2010 (Msekera Research Station, 2011). Groundnut is ranked first among the legume crops planted in the district and is the second most widely grown crop after maize. As in other sub-Saharan African countries, legume production in Zambia is typified by low productivity, inefficient markets, high transaction costs, low producer prices, and low farm incomes and asset holdings.

The research project aims to increase the incomes of smallholder farmers producing groundnuts in four districts in the Eastern Province of Zambia (Chipata, Katete, Petauke and Lundazi).

Gender:  ICRISAT is working with partners to support women along the value chain in Zambia. It  collaborated with the Eastern Province Farmers’ Cooperative  to organize a stakeholder workshop on groundnut value chain and gender in November 2013. The development and dissemination of on-farm small-scale machinery was identified as a major way to alleviate women farmers’ labor burden during harvest, especially hand shelling. Scaling up the processing of peanut butter and cooking oil was  highlighted and would involve the Community Market for Conservation, micro-scale processors, and the Chipata Women’s Development Association. 
Participants of the groundnut value chain and gender stakeholder workshop held in Eastern Zambia.
Capacity building and skills enhancement for Zambia Agriculture Research Institute at Msekera Research Station.
Participants during a capacity building workshop at the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute  research station.
Zambia’s Minister of Agriculture, Mr Robert Sichinga (2nd from left) interacts with workers at the Eastern Province Farmers’ Cooperative who are sorting groundnuts for export.
I appeal to the scientists not to be too caught up in the development of the technologies themselves. More importantly, focus on delivering these technologies and making sure they are adopted by farmers if we are to effect real and meaningful change in their lives. Otherwise, all these will be for nothing,” Mr Robert Sichinga MP, Zambia’s Minister of Agriculture and Livestock said during a recent visit of ICRISAT activities in Zambia .
Photo: S Sridharan, ICRISAT
Shelling groundnuts made easier.