Page last updated at 12:43 GMT, Monday, 24 October 2011 13:43 UK

Can industrialised farming make Africa feed the world?

Is industrialised farming good or bad for Africa? Watch full film

By Fergal Keane
BBC Newsnight, Zambia

Dabney Tonelli
Dabney Tonelli says Africa can become a net exporter of food

The vision unfolding across the Mkushi plain in Zambia is at odds with the doleful imagery of modern Africa to which we have become accustomed.

Three hours from the capital Lusaka the wheat crop glows under the tropical sun. A combine harvester moves methodically across one portion of a vast field. Nearby a giant sprinkler irrigates the soya bean crop.

One might as easily be standing on the plains of the American Mid-West or among the grain fields of the Ukraine.

These are fields of plenty, a productive Africa that challenges the narrative of conflict and hunger that so dominates our idea of the continent.

"If we just increased the yields to 80% of world averages, Africa would become a net exporter of food. We believe that Africa can feed itself and the rest of the world too," Dabney Tonelli of Chayton Africa, the British-owned company that manages the 25,000 acre farm at Mkushi, says.

Combine harvester in field
British-owned Chayton Africa manages a 25,000 acre farm in Mkushi

Chayton acquired a 14-year lease on the land from the Zambian government with the promise of hugely increasing yields, providing jobs for locals and passing on skills to the small farmers who live on subsistence plots nearby.

After years of misrule and corruption Zambia, which recently elected a new government, is seen as a beacon of stability on the continent.

"The political environment is stable, excellent conditions for agriculture in terms of climate and the quality of soil. For the agricultural investor Zambia is where you want to be," says Ms Tonelli.

Zimbabwean expertise

White farmers who were driven off their land in Zimbabwe have been hired to run the Chayton operation, bringing with them the intensive farming skills they have honed over decades.

The farm manager at Mkushi, Stuart Kearns, became a full-time farmer as a teenager after his father was killed in the Bush War in what was then Rhodesia. Despite his experiences in Zimbabwe he is optimistic about the future of farming in Zambia:

"There is huge potential here and I think the thing with Africa is that you have to keep trying again and again. That is something you learn when you grow up here."

Chayton promises to "create jobs, introduce sustainable farming methods… provide support and training to small-scale farmers".

Dr Guy Scott
Zambia's vice-president Dr Guy Scott voiced concern about job losses

But there are considerable obstacles - poor infrastructure and bureaucracy stand in the way of Zambia becoming a major exporter of food to the continent. At the moment Chayton is only producing for the local market.

And in an interview with Newsnight, the country's new vice-president, Dr Guy Scott, a farmer himself, was sceptical of some of the claims made by the company:

"I am very sceptical because I've been around a lot and I know what proposals look like and what justifications look like in the investment game and I would say that 90% of what is promised turns out not to be true… not necessarily because of any venality or any deliberate fraud.

"I mean people hope for the best. They hope it is going to work. And the government hopes it is going to work. And we all get each others hopes up. And then you find 'oh dear we didn't actually succeed in having the social impact or economic impact we'd hoped for'."

Displacement fears

Dr Scott worries about the social impact of job losses due to more intensive farming where machines take the place of people:

Brighton Marcokatebe
Local small-scale farmers complain about problems securing capital

"I think the main problem is that the population for Zambia is that the population is about four times too big for the economy. And I think that is the danger with large scale intensive farming; it tends to be capital intensive, it tends not to create jobs and at the same time tends to displace people who are unemployed from their fallback position which is to be subsistence farmers."

Chayton acknowledge that their modernised farming methods have already led to job losses, but insist that as the business grows it will create employment in spin-off businesses:

"Yes, over time some of the less skilled work goes as a result of mechanisation, but we are building a large scale business so over time we are creating other jobs," Ms Tonelli says.

"What we are able to do is train people to do highly skilled jobs which they can continue to use in a career in agriculture of transfer to other sectors as well."

Local feeling

The local subsistence farmers I meet say they welcome the principle of commercial farming, but have yet to see it bring any benefit to them.

Chayton has only been operating in the area for a year but Brighton Marcokatebe, a farmer in the nearby village of Asa, says other commercial farmers have failed to help their smaller neighbours.

Farmer in Zambia
Most of Zambia's farmers are small-scale subsistence farmers

"If they come with help then I will accept it, but so far they don't help," he says.

The villagers also complain that they cannot access capital. Most land in Zambia is owned by the state and administered by village chiefs. Without any legal title to the land small farmers cannot get bank loans to buy machinery and expand their production.

But according to Dr Guy Scott, Zambia's small farmers can look forward to a better deal:

"We're elected by Zambians and their interests have to come first. If their interests can be made to coincide with those of the international markets or whatever then great, but at the end of the day we are responsible for their protection, their social protection."

Matching that commitment with the agreements already made with foreign investors will require considerable political skill.

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