Osward Siwela (26) was forced, by a financial crisis and lack of funds, to abandon his undergraduate degree in agriculture in his final year and turn to potatoes.
Disappointed, but not crushed, Osward showed the resilience that every farmer needs to draw on from time to time, and found an opportunity farming potatoes. His first harvest this season has come up at a satisfying 4 000kg off an acre of land.
Next season he hopes to have raised enough money to fund the completion of his undergraduate degree. “I ran out of money to pay my university bills and had to drop out,” says Osward. “Amazingly, it was this dark reality that helped to turn my situation around. I think my life would have been very different had I had the funds to finish my degree at the time.”
No stranger to agricultural life, Osward was raised in a family that made a living from subsistence farming. What he lacked was exposure to the business side of farming. “My situation was clear so I just had to face reality and figure out what I was going to do about it,” he says.
During lectures at Kabwe’s Mulungushi University in Central Province, Osward had been made very aware of the power of agriculture to change people’s lives for the better. Drawing on his knowledge and his childhood experience, Osward teamed up with his cousin Stonnie Siwela (24). The two young men hatched a plan to farm white Irish potatoes on land owned by his grandfather at Kasupe farms in Chipata, Eastern Province.
“We decided on potatoes because there was a demand and we knew we could market them directly to consumers at market stands and other outlets,” he says.
FROM PLANNING TO EXECUTION
Uncertain of the exact costs of planting potatoes, Osward was pretty sure they had enough of an idea to get started. Earning money wherever they could, Osward and Stonnie travelled to Malawi to get White Irish potato seed of the Holland and Violet varieties, popular with local consumers. In Malawi, they were helped by two Malawians who had experience farming potatoes.
On an acre of land, with friable, well-drained soil, previously planted to soya, they planted 50kg of Holland and 50kg of Violet seed. Osward’s academic background played a vital role at this stage. He knew that it was vital to test the soil and check on soil types and he was able to do the tests.
“We also had to consider the length of the growing season and the fertiliser we would need. Obviously, we could not afford an irrigation system, so our crop was strictly reliant on rain.” One advantage they had was the fertility left behind by the soya crop that had been previously planted in the land. Potatoes are heavy feeders and need two major fertiliser applications during the season; a D-compound at planting and later, when the seed germinated, a mixture of D-compound and urea.
Assisted by a few casual labourers, the two men ridged with hand-held hoes. “An labour-intense but necessary task that minimizes root damage and controls weeds,” says Osward.
When planting, they realised that the seed was not enough for the area that they wanted to plant. The 100 kg of seed did not cover the entire planting area. After the seed germinated, they plucked some of it to cover the remaining piece of land. “It was hard work as we had to rely mostly on our hand hoes, but we kept at it,” he says.
When the rains came, the focus shifted to weeding and transplanting, and to the application of fertiliser and pesticides. “Potatoes need diligent weed control and disease and insect management. This was a bit of a stretch for us because we didn’t have the money needed for additional labour and pesticide purchase. However, we managed to grow a quality crop with minimum resources,” Osward says.
The white potato is becoming an important non-grain food commodity in the Zambian consumer market. Osward had some insight into this trend when he decided to grow potatoes. They were fortunate in that many of their clients bought potatoes off the farm and then spread the word, attracting other customers.
“Right now we are making good money supplying directly to consumers, lodges, restaurants and roadside stands. We have minimum marketing costs as we use Facebook and word-of-mouth to advertise our product.”
In an expanding business Osward sees retail chain stores as a possible outlet in the longer term. “The future looks promising with good consumer demand from the public and from a robust and growing tourist industry.”
BUILDING ON SUCCESS
Building on the success of the first season, Osward has plans to lease a much bigger land to expand his potatoes business. His vision for the future is bold and ambitious.
“My plan is to lease or acquire 50 hectares or more, divide it into smaller plots that will be given to people I would train to grow white Irish potatoes for on me on a contract basis as the buyer of their crop,” he says.
In order to make this venture a success, he intends to first initially get inputs under the Zambian government Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP). The land preparation would be done by a hired tractor and each contracted farmer would be required to sow, weed, transplant and apply fertilisers.
Other pre-requisites include investment in an irrigation system to ensure production was all year-round. He envisages within three years, all contracted farmers would have eventually grown into viable businesses that could also operate independently of the scheme.
This plan fits well into meeting the increasingly high consumer demand for white potatoes whose production is less than 40,000 tons per year. Though production has increased in the last few years, it was not short of meeting the demand that is currently filled in by imports.
“My aim is to substitute the consumption of imported white Irish potatoes for locally grown through a buy-back scheme with smallholder farmers in eastern province,” he says.
JUMPING THE OBSTACLES
Right on the heels of his bold and ambitious vision is the sobering reality of the obstacles Osward has to overcome. Lack of farming equipment and technology, inadequate access to finance and access to markets.
In addressing these challenges, Osward would join thousands of emerging Zambian farmers taking aim at the more practical problem: What do smallholder farmers need to do to migrate into successful commercial farmers?
His answer: Start with the passion and learn business planning as one would do in any other business. This includes acquiring the right skills and experience.
The payoff from his early success would plan a huge part in driving forward his vision. He is also encouraged by the fact that FISP has been expanded to cover more crops than ever before and the environment government was creating to get young farmers like him to embrace farming as a business.
‘Start with the passion and learn business planning as one would do in any other business’
“I wouldn’t have been able to do what I have done up to this stage if I didn’t believe in the huge potential of farming Irish potatoes. As long as I have the passion and energy, this vision will become a reality,” he says.
However, he cautions young people who want to venture into farming: “my story may make it sound almost serendipitous. Do not be fooled. There is plenty of hard work and many challenges.”