A PLACE TO GROW

Zambia 2014 | AGRICULTURE | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Hon. Wylbur C. Simuusa, Minister of Agriculture and Livestock, on the sector's contribution to GDP, improving infrastructure, and adding value to the country's products.

Hon. Wylbur C. Simuusa
BIOGRAPHY
Wylbur C. Simuusa graduated from the University of Zambia in 1986 with a degree in Mining Engineering, and later received his Masters in Coal and Mining from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. After the electoral victory of the Patriotic Front in 2011, he was briefly appointed as Minister of Mines. Then, he moved to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in early 2013 became the Minister of Agriculture.

What has been the contribution of the agriculture sector to Zambia's GDP over the past few years?

Agriculture in Zambia contributes between 18% and 20% of Zambia's GDP on an annual basis. Our aim right now is to increase that contribution, because traditionally Zambia is predominately a copper mining country. Since independence, copper mining has been our main source of foreign currency revenue. This is against the background that, in Zambia, we have excellent potential to develop agriculture. We have a lot of water, good soil, good climate, and a lot of arable space. We have 752,000 square kilometers of land and a population of over 13 million people. What this translates to is agricultural potential. The tragedy is that we are grossly underutilizing that potential. We are only using about 15% of what we could, meaning that there is huge potential for agriculture that is going untapped. The government has been telling people that we want to shift our dependence away from mining to other sectors so as to push up our economy. One of the sectors we have identified is agriculture, especially given the potential it shows. This is now what we are trying to do as a country, and as a government. We want agriculture to contribute more than its current 18%-20% to GDP. Let agriculture be the sector that will drive the country forward and move the economy ahead. Our vision is to make Zambia the food basket of the southern Africa region and beyond.

Only 15% of the land is being used, but 50% is arable. How are you trying to close this gap?

Right now, there are two ways we intend to close the gap between what we are currently using of the country's potential and where we should be. Either we can increase our hectarage or increase our productivity. Currently, we are in a hurry to increase our potential. Increasing the hectarage will require a lot of investment to clear land and build infrastructure. Hence, we thought about the quickest way. The answer was to look at productivity. Our productivity in agriculture is on the low side. For example, maize is our main crop. The majority of our farmers, who tend to be small- to medium-scale, achieve production of 2 tons-3 tons per hectare. Those that are doing it properly should be getting around 10 tons a hectare. So, already we realize that if given the same piece of land, we could get more from it initially through improved productivity. We want at least 5 tons per hectare in terms of maize, and it's the same story for other crops. We want to look at the issues of fertilizers, seed, and technology application. There is a lot of research in agriculture now, and we want to tap into the results of that research and transfer it to our farmers through outreach workers. Through them, research results can get to our farmers so that they can increase their yields. We want to see if we can make some form of mechanization available to our farmers so that they can increase their yield and productivity. Finally, we are looking at irrigation as most of our farming is rain-fed. We have one rainy season per year that goes from around November-December to about March-April. We have a lot of water in Zambia. If we could get the right irrigation in place, we could double our output. Through investment we could grow two crops a year, which would make for a significant increase in output. Those are the areas we are looking at in the short term to immediately boost our agricultural output and production. However, in the long term, we are looking at making the vast land we have available for agriculture.

How do you think that FDI can help Zambia move up the value chain?

That is an important consideration. To add value, you first of all need capital, obviously. You need factories, technology, and people that know how to operate these systems. At present, those skills are not available in Zambia. This is the same in mining, where we are traditional in outlook. Most of our minerals and copper are exported without value adding because of the lack of capital. In farming, in particular, this is where the major opportunity lies for FDI to bring investors in from outside to come and set up facilities and plants, access their networks, and get the crops that we have now stored properly, and then add value. FDI is crucial in this area. In fact, that is the way forward. Obviously, as the government, that is what we are targeting. The potential exists out there, and we are openly inviting investors to come and invest in the area of value adding for agricultural products.

What other crops are you most excited about?

Rice is at the top of the list. There is currently a push to look for alternatives to maize, because maize is the staple crop. In fact, maize is the number one crop. When you look at the best alternative, rice comes out on top. We have good conditions for sweet potatoes, also, and are looking at cassava, as it grows quite well here. In terms of cash crops, there are basically three: tobacco, cotton, and coffee. Sugar cane is restricted to big industry, but for our people we are looking at tobacco, coffee, and cotton as potential cash crops. On the livestock side, we are encouraging the five main animals: cattle (our main animal, both for beef and for daily use), pigs, goats, sheep, and poultry. We are pushing these five meats to balance the population's diet, and they are doing very well.

How will the development of more transport infrastructure help Zambia to become an agricultural exporter?

One thing I've learned about agriculture is that it cannot stand on its own. For it to work well, develop, and contribute to GDP, you need to have infrastructure around it, especially roads. You need to have good roads, and that equals transport. If we can get a quality road system and transport to and from the farms, then the first major step is achieved. We are trying very hard to become the food basket for the southern Africa region and beyond, and exports are the way to go. To achieve that, we need rail linkages. There is an excellent rail system coming up now, and through its optimal use we can reach our ports. We have a few high-value crops like flowers, but those can be exported to Europe or North America via plane. That is where the airports fit into the picture. Without transport, forget agriculture. It's a hugely important issue.