Ashok Oza

Managing Director, Saro Agro Industrial Ltd

Zambia’s farming industry is one the country’s most valuable sectors, accounting for around 20 per cent of the country’s total GDP. Yet agriculture in Zambia remains an industry full of potential and is a main focus for both the national government and the private sector, which view agriculture as ripe for producing strong social and economic returns on investment. The pioneering, family-run business Saro Agro Industrial manufactures equipment that reflects the growth and evolution of the farming industry, capitalising on innovative techniques in farming and on Zambia’s strategic location for exports

How long has Saro Agro Industrial been operating in Zambia and what markets does it serve?

Saro Agro has its origins in Livingstone, going back to 1940; not as Saro Agro, but as the Oza family. My parents settled in Livingstone in 1940, and my brother and I joined the family business in the 1960s. We started the SARO GROUP operations in 1985-86 in Lusaka. Initially we manufactured small-scale agricultural equipment – in particular hammer mills, for grinding maize. In the early 1990s the Zambian economy opened up after the first multi-party elections in over 25 years. We now had the opportunity to expand our operations beyond manufacturing small-scale agricultural equipment. We moved on to distributing small-scale irrigation equipment, and then to importing and distributing commercial scale farm equipment such as tractors, ploughs, harrows and sprayers from all over the world. As the economy grew, investment confidence and investment grew rapidly. We started investing in our physical infrastructure and in development of manpower. We have more than 300 people working with us and we now have branches and dealers throughout the country. We serve small-scale farmers, emerging farmers (people who are beginning to mechanise), commercial farmers and corporate farmers. We also manufacture and distribute specialised conservation farming equipment.


How do you envision the future of Zambia’s agro-industry?

First of all, Zambia has got good, arable land. Zambia still has large portions of land available for development, and there’s opportunity there for investment by people from within and outside of Zambia in the farming sector. Experts say around 40 per cent of Southern Africa’s water is in Zambia – we have to make use of it. The agriculture will grow because of local demand, but it is not limited to this. Zambia’s geographic position is such that Zambia can export to the eight countries that border it. Currently, the major export market for Zambia is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The population of what used to be Katanga in DRC is as much as that of the whole of Zambia. Agriculture there is only starting to grow. They depend on Zambia to a large extent for food crops. Angola is another market that is open to Zambia. Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050. Food has to be produced for that growing population. Zambia is one of the countries that has all the natural resources required to contribute to that increased food production. The government has prioritised agriculture as one of the engines of growth in Zambia. One of the most importing things is the development of Zambian technical manpower. That must keep in step with whatever growth we envisage. At present, we are going through a stagnant economic time because of a large bumper crop last year and an inadequate market available for that crop. For one or two years, the farming community will have some difficult times, but the farming community will overcome this and make agriculture grow. And the growth will not only be in the traditional crops but should diversify into high-value products that Zambia can export, not only to the neighbouring countries, but also overseas. So, we look forward to the future.

“Zambia still has large portions of land available for development, and there’s opportunity there for investment by people outside of Zambia in the farming sector”

What are some of those crops that you believe could do well in Zambia?

It’s not so much as what I believe can do well because that is for the market linkages to identify. In Zambia we have out-grower schemes, where people who have links to markets abroad encourage crops such as cotton and tobacco to be grown by people in Zambia specifically with the export market in mind. That is a model that Zambia needs to build upon. That model is now identifying crops such as stevia, a sweetener, used in Western countries, or black carrots. Such products can be identified by people who know the international market. Such people need to be encouraged and be given full support by the government. They are the ones who will help agriculture grow. I understand that India is a huge market for lentils and things like cowpeas and daals. Malawi, a small country, exports a large quantity of such products to India. People are quite happy growing maize, soya and wheat. The government is doing a lot, including developing plantations in all provinces of the country. Furthermore, the government has realised that forestry and our trees are a raw material that can, with proper management, help the economy grow. A lot of good things are happening in the country, not least of all being the infrastructure development in roads, water supply and sanitation. I think the country is on the brink of rapid growth.


What does Zambia offer in terms of investment incentives that differentiate it from other countries in the region?

One the biggest advantages that Zambia has, apart from all the natural resources and agricultural land, are the policy issues that Zambia can capitalise upon, such as the suspension of exchange controls. There are capital inflows and capital outflows. As long as people pay their taxes that are due to the government, they can do whatever they want to do. Over the first 30 years of Zambian independence, people grew tired of government regulations shackling their enterprises. I’ve been in business in Zambia since 1963, and I’ve seen the whole economic scenario from pre-colonial days to the present day, from a capitalist system, to an almost communist system, to an open system. I can assure you that I’d much rather work in this system, an open system, than in a system where the government controls everything. 

“As much as 40 per cent of  Southern Africa’s water is in Zambia – we have to make use of it”

Would you say you are pioneers when it comes to manufacturing items for the agricultural sector here in Zambia?

Yes, we are. Certainly, of the type of conservation farming equipment that we manufacture.


What is conservation farming and how did you get involved?

I think conservation farming is the way forward for the future. Its fundamental aim is to conserve water and land. We manufacture some of the equipment for conservation farming, and we export it to countries surrounding us. We developed the conservation farming pieces because we work with the conservation-farming unit, which is a part of the Ministry of Agriculture. The ministry is promoting conservation farming, and because the conservation-farming unit identified Saro as one of the companies with the capability to develop these tools, we were with them from the word go. We have been able to develop equipment that is suited to reaching the targets that they aim to achieve.



“I think the country is on the brink of rapid growth”

Could Zambia become a hub for manufacturing?

The Zambian economy is quite small for heavy industry. It is basically value-added activities that can develop. When it comes to what I would call heavy industry, they can use locally produced crops as a raw material, but for most other forms of industry we have to depend, to a major extent, on imported raw materials such as iron and steel. We have Kafue steel here, but it cannot supply everything that is required. So value addition is an extremely important component.


How do you think British investors should approach Zambia?

Britain has traditional ties with Zambia. Quite frankly, they should’ve been on the forefront of economic development in Zambia, but that hasn’t been the case. There is still an enormous amount of goodwill in Zambia towards Britain; they should capitalise on it. Let people come here and they will see the country’s stability, its potential and its great people. Don’t look at the Zambian market only; look at what you can export out of Zambia. The only way they can do it is by coming here and looking. The British High Commission is here.  And if they need to partner with people in Zambia, the best people to partner with are people who are already in business in the country. They can give them the correct perspective on the economy of the country or identify potential areas of cooperation.

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