Page last updated at 23:16 GMT, Thursday, 10 July 2008 00:16 UK

Issues of scale for Zambian farmers

By Paul Moss
BBC World Tonight, Zambia

Brenda Dakka and her husband Joe at their farm in Mkushi district
Brenda Dakka believes in large-scale commercial farming
Brenda Dakka does not look like the kind of woman who would be fascinated by heavy machinery.

But at her 1500 hectare farm in Mkushi District, eastern Zambia, Brenda and her husband Joe have plenty of tractors, pumps and other agricultural paraphernalia helping to ensure their crops are healthy, but above all keeping the farm's productivity high.

"I've got diggers, reapers - so per day, I can do a larger area," she insists.

"Small-scale farms prepare the land manually - but I'm mechanised, so I've got an advantage. If the world needs food security, commercial farming is the way to go."

Rising food prices

That certainly has long been the thinking in agricultural circles.

Small-scale "peasant" farms may have a certain quaint charm, so the argument goes, but if you are looking to maximise food production, it is the big guys who have all the potential.

But this year's stunning rise in food prices has knocked that presumption.

Drought played a part. So too did increased meat consumption in China, which led to crops being diverted into feeding animals rather than humans.

But many blame food price inflation on the decision many farmers took to stop growing food, and switch into growing bio-fuel instead.

"Small-scale farmers are more reliable," says Chibamba Kanyama, one of Zambia's leading economists.

"A small, peasant farmer will not shift easily. He will rely on food production. If only the peasant farmers are supported, they hold the key to food security."

No collateral

But that is a big "if." Small-scale farmers in Zambia suffer a marked lack of support, and for one clear reason.

Most have had their land assigned to them by a local "chief" or "head-man".

They may have farmed it for decades, but they will have no title to the land.

And without that land to use as collateral, the government and banks refuse to lend them money to develop - no security, no loan.

"I want to build a bigger chicken run," Olipah Piri says, her face full of frustration.

"I want to feed more people. I am trying to do better, but I can't."

Olipah farms a few hectares just 50 miles from the Zambian capital, Lusaka.

"If there is some good Samaritan out there, maybe they can help me," she says.

But Olipah does not need charity, she just needs access to credit like anyone else.

'Food basket'

Zambia's Minister for Lands, Bradford Machila, acknowledges there is a problem.

"The small farmers are a crucial part of the food basket in Zambia," he says.

But asked why the government cannot arrange loans to farmers, he just says that the department of agriculture is "looking into it".

"As an indication of our commitment to the small-scale farmers, the government provides every year, subsidised fertiliser. It's had a huge impact on their capacity."

Where the government has certainly made an impact is on the lives of commercial farmers. Mik Maarfi has been farming in Mkushi district for four years, ever since he was kicked out of Zimbabwe.

"It's fantastic what the Zambian electricity supply people have done," he says.

"Great big cabling and transformers have been put in, to enable us to grow wheat."

'Economies of scale'

Mik's farm is another mechanised affair.

Great big "centre pivots" irrigate his crops, and the government has also given farmers tax breaks on all the machinery they import from abroad.

And quite right too, insists Mik, who believes that commercial farms are the answer to the world's food problems.

"It's economies of scale," he argues.

"You have the spending power to introduce the most modern farming methods. You can produce a hell of a lot of food."

Mik is growing tobacco right now, but he insists he will be moving into wheat as soon as he has the irrigation system ready.

But the World Food Programme is not convinced by these arguments.

The UN body now tries to source all its food from small-scale farms, part of the "Food for Progress" scheme.

"Seventy to eighty percent of Zambia's food comes from small-scale farmers", the WFP's representative here, Felix Edwards says.

"If you can increase their productivity, that's a lot of capacity."


The Zambian Government insists it is trying to do just that.

Next year, it will be dishing out huge swathes of hitherto unused land to small-scale farmers, and they will have title to it.

Meanwhile there are some signs that banks in Zambia may be loosening up, and will eventually lend money to farmers who do not own their land.

But that's not enough for Richard Mabena, chairman of the Farmers' Association in Chongwe District, and himself a small-scale farmer.

"I can strive, develop and grow bigger," he says. "I would like to grow to be like a commercial farmer, I could if I had credit. I am a human being."

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