Change is slow in Zambian agriculture, but it’s happening

Mpongwe, Zambia, Feb. 11, 2008:

A spray plane drones overhead, a familiar sound to this Canadian grain farmer. Familiar and yet strange, here among mostly subsistent African farmers whose fields rarely extend beyond a few acres, tended with oxen and hoe. But these fields join the fence line of commercial farmers growing hundreds of acres of corn and soybeans, which are being sprayed for fungal diseases. One of the commercial farmers is a white from South Africa;

others could be white farmers from Zimbabwe who have been displaced by Robert Mugabe. They are bringing their experience and knowledge to Zambia and have contributed significantly to the fact that the country has once again become an exporter of food commodities.

Our job here is to try to help small scale farmers increase their production so that they too can begin to contribute more significantly to the general economy and especially their own. Mpongwe co-op members come from 11 district churches. Six of them received loans to plant corn and some of the money was allocated to the district pastors who are overseeing the projects. On Saturday and Sunday we toured 11 plots. We used pastor Jessy’s Mitsubishi Canter three ton truck and were glad we had a good vehicle because the “roads” were often just trails leading through the bush and tall elephant grass. The rain made for interesting driving. It also made for poor corn plots.

Two of them are struggling, with the water table just under the surface. “Why did they pick that spot for a plot?” pastor Jessy asked. It’s a question we will raise in today’s meeting with the leaders as we assess the information we gathered on the crop tour.

Most of the plots are coming along fine. It is easy to look at the crops and the people here and come up with solutions that sound good. Why don’t they rotate with soybeans, as the commercial farmers do? Because soybean seed needs to be inoculated, they tell us. That is expensive and you need facilities to keep the inoculants fresh. OK, what about peanuts? When you calculate the labour and expense, you are better off with corn, they say. (Why do Canadian farmers grow too much canola?). There are no easy answers here. It is only as we live among the people here that we begin to understand the culture and environment that influences their decisions and practices.

All the fields, with an average size of 2½ acres, were plowed with oxen, except pastor Jessy’s, who owns a tractor. Most then drew the lines for planting by hand, using string to keep it straight. A hole is made with the hoe and the seed is dropped in by hand and covered with the hoe. Labour is plentiful here. Those using this method had better germination than those covering the rows with the oxen.

There is a wide range of growth in the fields, even though planting times were similar. Together we try to find out the reasons for the issues we are seeing. Robert and pastor Jessy talk to the farmers about timing of fertilizer, seeding depth and weed control timing. Most plots are weeded by hand – and in the rainy season the weeds grow back as fast as you remove them. For most of the farmers this kind of discussion is a first. They don’t seek out information; they just do what they have always done.

Robert keeps talking to them about crop rotation. They mostly grow corn – a big feeder that is depleting their fragile soil. It is their staple crop, the one they know to grow, and the one they eat as Nshima. They don’t have much room to play with risk – if they fail, they will not eat. We try to tell them there are other things to eat. But if a farmer has eaten potatoes all his life, try to tell him to eat cornmeal instead. Same thing here. We realize again that all change will be slow. But it is happening.

Previous entries

Diaries of a Global Farmer – February 7, 2008

Diaries of a Global Farmer – February 1, 2008

Diaries of a Global Farmer – January 25, 2008

Diaries of a Global Farmer – January 18, 2008

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