Grasping the scale of the challenge in Zambia’s agricultural sector

On Monday 11th January 2016, Joseph Bish – the Director of Issue Advocacy at the Population Media Center – published an article in The Guardian titled “Population growth in Africa: grasping the scale of the challenge”[1] in which he pointed out two important trends. First, the fact that population growth in Africa will grow at a relatively faster pace, a trend that is at variance with most parts of the world. Second, that this growth is projected at annual increases that will exceed 42 million people per year, which will see the continent’s population double to 2.4 billion by 2050.

One of the more promising African democracies of our time – Zambia – faces a scenario that is consistent with the continental trend. Zambia’s population will grow from the current levels of around 17.2 million in 2017 to 43 million by 2050. To put that increase into context, it means that, on average, a child will be born every minute for the next 33 years, which translates to a population that is two and a half times that of 2017.

But population growth alone tells only half the story, because the population will not only grow significantly, but it will have a considerable purchasing power. Over the next five years (2017 – 2021), average income in Zambia will increase by 20% in nominal USD terms (See Chart 1).

Chart 1

However, the broad consensus of increasing income – and consequently, the emergence of the middle class – does come with a caveat. Professor Thomas Jayne – an International Development expert – in his analysis of mega-trends shaping Africa’s evolving agro-food system, argued that there are scenarios in which income growth will not be “broad-based”[2]. The concentration of buying power among a much smaller segment of the population has led to recent arguments that fundamentally question the size of the emergent middle class, emphasizing that initial projections may have over-looked the impact of skewed income distribution and inequality. A growing body of evidence from research (such as that of McKinsey & Co.) suggests that average incomes in urban centers tend to be significantly higher than the national average – which implies that income growth has oftentimes occurred in concentrated pockets. This dimension of the rural-urban dichotomy has been grossly under-explored thus far.

What has been much talked about, however, is how the urbanization phenomenon is set to re-configure the structure of agro-food markets. In Zambia, 42% of the population currently resides in urban centers. Population projections suggest that Zambia’s urban-rural divide will be evenly split in 15 years’ time (see Chart 2).

Chart 2

This level of rural-to-urban migration is expected to continue unabated, such that 60% of Zambia’s population will be urbanised by 2050. We might not know the extent to which the benefits of income growth will be distributed within and across the urban-rural divide. But what is easily discernible is that the complete reversal of the rural-urban population share will come with some fundamental implications in food production and distribution.

For instance, the competition for land will predictably come into sharp focus, with urban sprawl and other competing uses for land – such as agriculture – likely to become an issue of fundamental importance[3]. Fortunately, Zambia is one of six to eight countries in Africa that are classified as “land abundant”, with a reasonable amount of available crop land. However, with the overall population expected to more than double, there is a good chance that the prevailing scenario of land availability might not be guaranteed in the future. Zambia’s rural population is still going to grow by 80% over the next 30-35 years, with studies also indicating an increase in the size of farms – what Dr Anthony Chapoto termed “the emergent class of medium-scale farmers”.

With land availability likely to become a key uncertainty in the not-so-distant future, how can agriculture position itself to be ready to feed a growing population, within the context of an evolving agro-food system (i.e. growing population and incomes, urbanization, changing dietary patterns etc.)? This question has been the subject of a number of conceptual and empirical analyses over the recent past. My view is that Zambia, like the rest of the continent, has only one of two choices.

The first choice is to do nothing. We can either continue with life as usual and produce and market agricultural production the same way, or at best, effect minimal changes just enough to prevent existential damage to our current production systems. However, without much change in production systems, the sector will not sufficiently meet the demands of a burgeoning populace – and as a result, we will depend on others to produce for us.

Broadly, we have seen this strategy at play so far in the wider African region as a whole, with a few exceptions. The “do-nothing” approach is manifestly reflected in the shift in Africa’s position from a net exporter to a net importer of food over a period of three to four decades (1960s – 1990s). This trade deficit has continued to widen, as witnessed over the past 15 years –  it grew from US$4.7 billion in 2001 to US$24.6 billion in 2015 – an astonishing 5-fold increase [4].

Unlike many African countries, Zambia has made some reasonable progress over the past 10 to 15 years. It’s worth mentioning that maize yields have essentially doubled since the turn of the millennium – from 1.4 tons/ha in 2001 to 2.8 tons/ha in 2015, turning Zambia into a consistent surplus maize producer[5]. In fact, Zambia was the only country to produce a surplus in the 2015/16 drought season. Also, worth noting is how Zambia’s wheat production quadrupled over the past 15 years, from 60 000 tons in 2001 to 250 000 tons in 2016[6]. Zambia has generally established an enviable level of food self-sufficiency that is unparalleled in present-day Africa.

The temptation to become complacent while basking in the glory of recent successes is almost inevitable.  It is important to remind ourselves that all of this success could be negated if the sector adopts a “do-nothing” approach against a tidal wave of imminent changes, whose potential impact we cannot afford to under-estimate. It is for this reason that a second alternative choice is critical to consider.

The second choice is to seize available technologies (such as drought and pest tolerate seed, fertilizers, chemicals etc.) and adopt them in a much more aggressive but sustainable way. In the spirit of Esther Boserup’s narrative of “necessity as the mother of invention”, the doubling of Zambia’s population over the next 35 years implies the need to attain quantum leaps in agricultural production that can only be attained by technology adoption at a significant scale.

That means 2.8 tons/ha of maize yields will not be good enough in 2050, neither is it even today. Despite yield gains, Zambia’s maize yields are still 1.3% below the SADC’s weighted regional average, and 37% below those of South Africa (See Chart 3).  Between 2010-2014, South African average maize yields were 4.2 tons/ha; and in certain parts of the Free State Province, yields for maize under irrigation can get up to 10 tons/ha. Yields in large scale commercial agriculture in Zambia are at par with South Africa, but smallholder farmers lag behind significantly. Professor Thomas Jayne– and his team at the Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute (IAPRI) here in Lusaka – argued that if smallholder farmers apply some very basic and appropriate agronomic practices, such as applying lime to correct soil acidity, this alone could improve their yields by as much as 10%.

Chart 3

The other reason why the second option is now a strategic necessity is the recent threat of the Fall Army Worm (FAW) – which has affected 124 000 hectares of cropped land[7] – as well as the perennial threat of the El Nino weather phenomenon, both of which demand that the agricultural sector starts thinking outside of the box. The scale of exogenous changes challenge all of us to think differently about how agriculture ought to adapt and cope with the multitude of factors, above-mentioned.

The more urgent question, however, is if the policy makers have a full grasp of the scope and scale of the challenge. I am inclined to be take a much more pessimistic view. In the three and a half years I have spent engaging policy makers within the African continent, I have derived very little inspiration. In my humble observation, there remains a general reluctance within the continent’s body politic to implement some of the much needed disruptive but progressive agricultural policies that will shift and align the agricultural sector to more ably meet the challenges ahead – particularly in relation to technology adoption.

In the Zambian context, this reluctance also extends to agricultural trade and market policy, with maize export bans indicative of the fact that policy makers are yet to fully embrace the country’s perceived role as the bread-basket for the region. But technical change without market reforms will lead to a negative disruption of markets. As it seems, Zambia has managed, thus far, to produce food at a pace faster than its growing population, but its trade and market policies have not recognized this shift. Of key importance going forward is that, as the gains of technology adoption spread to small scale and emergent medium-scale farmers, market reforms should align to facilitate the free movement of agricultural production within Zambia, and across its borders. There are clear advantages for adopting this approach and the hope is that the policy makers will be bold enough to adopt free market reforms.

*****This article was based on a presentation I gave at the Omnia Farmer’s Day in Lusaka – on 24 March 2017


[2] TS Jayne, FH Meyer and L Ndibongo-Traub. (2015). Africa’s evolving agro-food system: Drivers of change and the scope for influencing them.

[3] TS Jayne, et al. (2016). Africa’s Changing Farm Size Distribution Patterns: The Rise of Medium-Scale Farms.

[4] International Trade Centre (ITC) Statistical Database, (2017)

[5] United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), (2017)

[6] United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), (2017)

[7] Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) – Global Information and Early Warning Systems (GIEWS), (2017).

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