Zambia is embarking on a series of agricultural development initiatives to maximize its potential and position itself as the regional food basket.

Agriculture is the pillar of the Zambian economy and consequently has been the focus of increasing government attention. The sector accounts for up to 85% of the country's employment and represents as much as 20% of GDP. Zambia's primary crops include maize, tobacco, wheat, cotton, rubber and coffee, which contribute to 35% of the country's non-traditional exports. Sorghum, rice, millet, and cassava are also considered staple commodities. In total, these crops make up 10% of Zambia's export revenue. Over the past decade, production rates have varied considerably, due largely to fluctuations in rainfall. Despite this yearly variance, Zambia tracks an undeniable overall trend of positive agricultural growth with high potential for further development. Since 2009, the annual agricultural growth rate has been over 10%.

The country has roughly 40.5 million uncultivated hectares of high-potential, arable land, which is greatly praised for its fertile soil and favorable climate conditions. Moreover, 40% of southern Africa's water resources fall within the country's borders, and average annual rainfall figures range between 800 mm and 1,400 mm. It is this potential that the government intends to capitalize on in its efforts to further diversify the economy away from copper mining dependency. In fact, Lusaka plans to use the agriculture sector as the primary driver in its strategy for economic development.


In recent years the government has implemented a number of programs aimed at maximizing the country's agricultural potential and alleviating poverty. Despite an average GDP growth rate of 7% YoY rural poverty has remained at a persistent 77% between 2001 and 2011. Zambia knows that its rural population is the key to achieving inclusive, sustainable development and curing unemployment. Zambia's agriculture sector, however, consists of smallholdings of relatively low productivity, providing only 2 tons to 3 tons of yield per hectare for staple crops such as maize. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, 72% of small farms cultivate less than 2 hectares of land each year solely for subsistence. Increasing farmer productivity will be among the government's top priorities as Zambia looks to qualify for the World Bank's Middle Income classification by 2030. In an exclusive interview with TBY, Wylbur C. Simuusa, Minister of Agriculture and Livestock, elaborated on his agriculture development approach: “Increasing the hectarage will require a lot of investment to clear land and build infrastructure. So, we thought about the quickest way. The answer was to look at productivity."

In 2013 the government published its National Agriculture Investment Plan for the 2014 to 2018 period. The report highlights development initiatives such as the Farmer Input Support Program (FISP) and the Food Reserve Agency (FRA), which together account for 60% of yearly allocations. Since its initiation, the FISP has been working to significantly increase maize harvests by subsidizing seed and fertilizer supplies to small-hold farmers. In the last few years the program has been expanding in line with the government's ambitions for the sector. During the 2011/2012 period the project's beneficiaries increased from 891,5000 to 914,690.

The FRA, on the other hand, was founded to manage food reserves and improve national food security by compensating for supply shortages. Zambia's agricultural production capacity is highly affected by the precipitation levels it receives during its rainy season from November until April. The country's vulnerability is partly due to its underutilization of irrigation and an overreliance on rain-fed agriculture. Fortunately, the government is also interested in encouraging farmers to better use the country's water resources. “We have a lot of water in Zambia, rivers and all. If we could get irrigation, it could double our output," said Simuusa, Minister of Agriculture.


The dominance of maize monocultures in Zambia also contributes to the country's food insecurity. Over 2.7 million households grow corn, which remains the most widely cultivated crop in the country. For the past five years Zambia has produced record-breaking harvests. Production in September of 2014 was already 30% higher than last year's average, which equates to 3.35 million tons of yield. Favorable market prices have encouraged farmers to plant more of the crop. Large-scale farmers increased their planted hectares by 89% during the year. The increase in yield and cultivation has resulted in 599,192 tons of overstock, most of which is stored with the FRA. The government is looking to see a total of one million tons of harvest by the end of the year to increase grain reserves even further.

Tobacco is another crop that the country heavily relies on. The subsector employs 450,000 people and production has been increasing dramatically over the last decade. “Last year Zambia produced about 41 million kilograms. That volume continues to rise, and in 2014 we are expecting to produce about 45 million kilograms," Samson Muyembe, CEO of the Tobacco Board of Zambia, told TBY. Tobacco, along with cotton and coffee, are recognized as the country's three primary cash crops that contribute the most to exports.

Zambia is also working to diversify its agricultural produce to more drought resistant crops. Some 7% of Finance Minister Alexander Chikwanda's 2014 budget was set aside for agriculture, of which 51%, or KMW3.08 billion are meant to fund diversification programs. Rice, cassava, and sweet potatoes are being prioritized for cultivation as they can easily adapt to the Zambian climate. In terms of livestock, cows, sheep, goats, pigs and poultry are also of increasing importance to the Zambian economy.


In addition to boosting agricultural production domestically, Zambia is working to position itself as a regional breadbasket. Currently, much of the country's agricultural exports go to China. For example, nearly 100% of the country's tobacco production is exported to China, with Brazil and Japan accounting for only a marginal share. The EU is also expected to play a larger role in consuming Zambian horticulture in the future. Zambia is the region's largest sugar producer, and the EU is one of the subsector's largest revenue generators. Trade with the EU is facilitated by the Everything But Arms initiative, which is designed to help less developed countries integrate into the global economy.

The country's geostrategic position, landlocked in the middle of the southern Africa region, is especially advantageous to Zambia's agricultural exports. With eight bordering countries, the potential for developing regional trade ties is very positive. The agriculture sector will be indirectly improved by the country's Link Zambia 8000 road development project. Launched at the end of 2012, the ambitious initiative plans to construct 8,000 kilometers of high-quality roadways. The paving of these highways will enable agricultural trade and agro-investments.

Zambia's agriculture exports are also supported by the country's membership in important regional intergovernmental organizations. These include the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA)and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).