Alex Lwatula (46) a former banker, who worked in the sector for 22 years, has changed track and chosen a new career in agriculture. Married to Bernadette and the father of two girls, Kasuba (11) and Mwenge (10), Alex has learnt that farming comes with a different set of problems than those he encountered in the banking world.
Alex tells africanfarming.com that as a boy growing up in Chinsali, game meat formed a big part of his family’s diet. “There was so much meat but a shortage of vegetables, and we got to a point where we craved the vegetables,” he says. Barely 10 years old when, encouraged by his mother, he started his own vegetable garden, Alex was so successful that he could supply not only the home table, but his neighbours as well. “I sold my surplus to people in the community, which gave me plenty of change in the pocket.”
On entering secondary school at Lubushi Junior Seminary, Alex’s interest in farming was strengthened. The school had a poultry and vegetable project in which pupils were expected to work. “This helped me get more experience in hands-on farming. I also took an interest in agricultural science,” says the ex-banker.
Despite graduating from the University of Zambia with a sociology degree, Alex never lost his interest in agriculture. “In 2002, there was a resurgence in the mining industry and I was working on the Copperbelt. A colleague and I teamed up with a view to acquiring land and starting a poultry venture.”
Unfortunately, this plan never materialised. Alex’s friend suffered a personal tragedy and the bank transferred him back to Lusaka.
Then, in 2004, Alex decided to try part-time farming. In fact, world-wide, many aspirational farmers start like this. In farming, cash flow is often the problem, even for farmers who own their assets, cash flow can be difficult at certain times of the year. Hanging onto a job while getting started on a farming venture, makes sense if it can be efficiently managed.
“A friend told me about a property his uncle wanted to sell in Palabana, 40km east of Lusaka,” says Alex.
Initially, he was not too excited about this prospect, because he had experienced first-hand the poor condition of the roads in that area when scouting for land.
“I reasoned that there was nothing to be lost by having a look so I went out to the farm and found that it neighboured the farm of the then Republican president Levy Mwanawasa.” The day of Alex’s visit the president was actually in residence, with the state flag flying at his entrance.
“I became completely sold on the idea of buying the land even before I looked over it.”
FINDING THE CAPITAL
Although he had no money at the time, Alex immediately made an offer to buy the 30ha block and his friend showed an interest in buying the adjoining 30 hectares. “In the next few months, I spent most of my time trying to figure out how I would raise the capital to pay for the land,” he says.
At a bank workshop, during the water-cooler break, Alex mentioned his interest in farming to his boss, the managing director of the bank. The MD advised him to ‘get an equity release on your house in the Copperbelt’. Alex got his equity release two days later and used the money to purchase his farm, to which he holds the title.
This is one of the hurdles that must be overcome in start-up agricultural ventures he says. “It would have been difficult for me to do this without the support I had from the bank. Farming needs a lot of capital.”
The first thing Alex did was to set up an overall business model. Drawing on his earlier experience, he drafted a phased in plan. Starting at a subsistence level, he progressed to producing surplus for sale. “From that level, I anticipated that I would be able to raise more capital for infrastructure.”
Alex grew vegetables and fruit, mainly dependent on the rain for water, for a couple of years. “Then something happened for which I was totally unprepared. In 2014 I was retrenched, despite being a top performer at the bank.”
Disappointed at first, Alex soon realised that his retrenchment was a blessing in disguise. His severance package and his personal savings funded the erection of two houses, two ponds and an incubator, for a Pekin duck venture.
Research told him that Pekin ducks were fetching good prices on the local markets because of the high feed to meat conversion rate.
“I secured a contract to supply 1 000 ducks a month to one of the upmarket hotels,” he explains. “I ran two flocks with a three to four interval week between them and in this way I was able to keep up supply consistency.”
Alex bought maize and wheat bran from other farmers in his area to make up his duck ration. At the same time he was supplying vegetables to hotels, lodges, a pizza outlet and a number of middle income consumers. “I specialised in cash crops like tomatoes, lettuces, chillies, cabbages and peppers, red and green. And I invested in an irrigation system to boost production. Things really began to take shape.”
At this stage, Alex was in the process of building his own house on the land, and so for part of the time he left things in the hands of his labour force. “I had to rely on local labour to keep a watch for me during my absences from the farm. At one stage, I lost 50 000 head of cabbage to disease. I had the chemicals and the spray equipment but my labour was not consistent.”
Power outages compounded his problems and Alex lost 1 500 duck eggs after a 15 hour power outage. “There was a generator, but it cannot run for extended periods,” he explains.
After this incident, Alex scaled down on the duck production, reducing from 1 000 ducks to only 100. “This was a hard lesson; in a short time I went from promising success to complete disaster,” he says.
RECOVERING FROM ADVERSITY
Reeling from the blow, Alex went back to the corporate banking world for a while. Then, last October, he went back to full-time farming. By this stage, his house had been built and the road infrastructure was greatly improved.
“Rebuilding was more straightforward. I had paid my school fees, and now I have a mini integrated farming system that I will keep scaling up at a slow and steady rate.”
Some land (8ha) has been set aside for soya, a crop that Alex sees as doing well and one which he plans to expand. A further two hectares is dedicated to maize, which is used for domestic consumption and as feed for the ducks. Duck manure is used as fertiliser for soya, maize and vegetables.
On the duck production side, Alex is raising ducks from a breeding core of between 60 and 100 ducks, with 15 males. With this breeding population he can supply 250 ducks a month.
Since he is now on site, he is optimistic that he can increase to and even surpass his former production volumes. “We have a solar system now to take over when the power goes down, which will be a big help.”
Alex has increased vegetable production and supplies his former customers with the same lines as before with the addition of Chinese cabbage.
The step-by-step approach works better for Alex, he tells africanfarming.com. One hard lesson he learnt was that sorting out staff issues should be a priority before going ahead with farm development.
“I think that emergent farmers like myself must be considered for subsidised loans or concessions to set up solar systems.” Power outages with limited back-up can destroy new ventures which can be avoided if there is solar, he says.