Here is an exclusive interview with Mr Jervis Zimba, President of the Zambia National Farmers’ Union, the owners of the upcoming Agritech Expo Zambia, taking place for the fourth time in Chisamba from 27 to 29 April.
Tell us a bit about yourself. When did you know that you were an agriculturist?
First of all, I don’t know how it came about, but through my father and mother, who were both teachers, everywhere we went they used to do farming. And then eventually they owned a farm.
So as young as I was, they used to teach us a lot about agriculture. And that is how I developed the interest. And from thereon, most of my friends were all in the farming business or their fathers were farmers. And that is how I developed the passion.
Actually, agriculture is purely a passion. If you have no passion for agriculture, and patience, you can never, never like it. And that is how I started to develop my interest in agriculture. I have been a fulltime farmer since 1992 up until today.
The ZNFU has received negative publicity and went through a rough patch during the last year and a half. How important is it to rebrand their image?
First of all, I consider what the ZNFU went through during the past year and a half as a drought. At times, we farmers make losses in our businesses, in other times we make profits. I consider what the ZNFU went through as a drought. If you are growing 100 hectares of maize and at the end of the season all your money is wiped out, the next stage is to start again with the little money that you have left.
So you start with maybe five hectares and you build it up until you are growing 100 hectares again. This is what has transpired with the ZNFU. We have put it behind us, the farmers out there are quite supportive, they are encouraging one another, they are more united than ever and they are looking forward that this Union continues to do what it was meant for.
And we are geared for it, we are receiving quite a lot of donations from farmers already that we need to sort out a couple of things. But we are happy that the farmers are encouraging us to continue. I think in the past five months that I have been in office, you can see that the ZNFU is rebranding and we are settling down.
What can visitors to Agritech Expo expect this year?
What people can expect this year is to see the ZNFU pushing the agenda of diversification. As you are aware, most of our farmers are small scale, and they want to grow maize, cotton and soybeans. But now we are seeing that our farmers are trying to diversify to other crops and this is what we are pushing. And we are looking at the issue of mechanisation, getting away from the old traditional way of doing our work.
‘And the farmers have no control over the prices and therefore their returns are always diminishing.’
We are now also pushing the agenda for the diversification of fruit and vegetables in the country because Zambia is importing close to about 42-million dollars of produce from outside the country. We want to close that gap, and as soon as we have closed the gap, I am sure about 30-million dollars should be able to remain in the country and it will change the livelihoods of the farmers.
What in your view are the main agricultural challenges that farmers are facing and what regional challenges is the ZNFU facing?
The major issue that farmers are facing is the cost of production that is becoming higher and higher and the returns are becoming minimal. So many taxes are being introduced, electricity tariffs are going up, road taxes, council levies, labour costs, the list is quite long.
So if you compute that and you look at the costs of the input itself, it is way out. And the farmers have no control over the prices and therefore their returns are always diminishing. So that is what we are always facing as farmers and we are engaging with government on how to reduce the cost of production.
And we have always told government, if you want agriculture to be the mainstay of the economy, then the first thing they need to do is instead of putting this tax and that tax, they just need to zero rate agriculture completely. If there is a zero rate on agriculture for a couple of years we will see investments coming through. But again, government is reluctant, but we are hoping that in the next budget perhaps, they can lend us an ear. It is for the good of the country anyway.
‘We are being used as a dumping ground for most of the products from our neighbours.’
If they don’t want to listen, Zambia will never be a breadbasket. The only way we can achieve the status of being a breadbasket is to zero rate agriculture.
What do you see as the main challenges to the industry in the region?
We are being used as a dumping ground for most of the products from our neighbours. This is what we are trying to work around. And we hope Government can see that when we lobby, that we shouldn’t be a dumping ground and that our farmers are able to grow what our neighbours are able to grow. I think that will basically be a turning point.
Otherwise, regionally the past two seasons have not been good for farmers because of the drought. But this year we seem to have a good season and therefore I think in terms of maize, which is our staple crop, we should be able to have some surpluses for exports. Of course, generally, the outlook for the region seems to be good as all the countries might post slight surpluses or reduced imports from markets that we have been importing before.
Is there hope for agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa?
This issue has been on my agenda for a long time. Europe has always been saying that the countries which will feed the world around 2050 are in the sub-Sahara and Zambia is in the sub-Sahara. We need to start positioning ourselves to take on this challenge as even in our own country the population is growing.
What the colleagues in Europe have done is to focus and ask ‘where are we going to get food for the world?’ Some time back I attended a conference in France where Bill Gates said: ‘Why don’t we build big storage sheds in sub-Sahara for grain to feed the world?’ And I was thinking to myself, wow they are talking about Zambia.
‘If we can just zero rate agriculture, we can attract huge investments.’
And I think all of us as a country, politicians and farmers, we should realise Zambia is the future to feed the world as they have been talking about the sub-Sahara for the past five years. We are the only stable country in terms of politics and security and we need to take advantage of this.
Anything else you would like to add?
I would like to encourage everyone to visit Agritech Expo. This Agritech Expo will become the biggest in sub-Sahara, surpassing South Africa. Already you can see the progression in the participation in the event from when it started, with a lot of farmers who come and learn and adopt new technologies.
If we can just zero rate agriculture, we can attract huge investments. Our farmers are facing challenges but one can see there is a group of young farmers coming to the fore and the ZNFU has been encouraging this group. And for the next five years I will be looking to get them into the leadership so that they can take over from us, as we are getting older.
I think this is very important that Agritech expands, putting in place permanent structures, including a hotel, which was part of the original design of the event.