Dora Siliya

Former Minister of Agriculture

Zambia’s agricultural sector is undergoing a Green Revolution that seeks to radically transform the industry. Focusing on mechanisation, transitioning to year-round production and providing opportunities for smallholder farmers, the Ministry of Agriculture is driving an ambitious agenda. Efforts to modernise agriculture in Zambia provide a multitude of opportunities for investors looking to capitalise on the growth potential of agribusiness in Africa

«The government has created a conducive environment for the private sector to enter the market»

 

When you took over, you highlighted food security as a top priority for the Ministry. What are the current priorities for the Ministry of Agriculture?

One of the things we’ve truly achieved in the last year is a change of mindset. Agriculture is not just a way of life for the poor people in the villages; it is a business and a sector that has the potential to transform the lives of the people in this country and reduce poverty. Agriculture is the de facto Ministry of Labour because the majority of Zambians are employed in agriculture in one way or another — it is the backbone of our country. Seventy per cent of the population is involved in agriculture. For me, if we have achieved anything, it has been that change in thinking, to say: “let’s continue to support copper and mining, but let’s also invest in agriculture so we can create even more jobs for the people of Zambia.” It is a national agreement to not just give agriculture lip service, but to consistently support agriculture. I really believe this is an enduring change. There is commitment from the Office of the President. The president has stated that we can’t just tend to agriculture when the mining sector is doing badly. Agriculture is what will reduce poverty and support Zambian households. We have a critical mass of government and citizens who agree it is the right thing to do.

«The land is available—the government has set aside one million hectares of land for investment, and that land is open to both Zambians and foreign investors»

In 2016, the president announced his plan for Zambia’s “Green Revolution”. How is the Ministry of Agriculture mobilising to accomplish this plan?

In Zambia, one of the things we’ve agreed upon is that within the Green Revolution we have to accept climate change in order to mitigate its effects and adapt to it. We’ve been working with a lot of partners, such as the EU, on sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation. It is also important to give our farmers the initial support needed to get off the ground. This is what the e-voucher programme is all about. It is providing subsidies directly and efficiently to the farmers, to support them in the early years before they are on their own. We know that start-up costs have been a challenge for small farmers, and these targeted subsidies address those financial challenges. Another component that is critical to the agricultural revolution is the support this government has given to seed growers. What we have done to support the private sector in terms of seed production has been phenomenal. The government is conducting research and certification to support the growth of the maize seed sector. This has resulted in 3.6 million metric tons of product, and Zambia is now first in Africa in terms of maize seed production. However, we do not want to excel with just maize seed, and that is why the government is focusing on diversification. We’ve identified 10 crops that will allow us to take advantage of all the value chains around these individual crops and to address nutrition on a national level. We know that agriculture is a business — but it is also the biggest input in a healthy nation. We are connected to health, social and poverty issues when we think about diversification. Mechanisation is critical. Unless we change the fact that the majority of our farmers use the rudimentary hoe and bend their backs during a lifetime — especially women farmers — we are not going to achieve the Green Revolution. Mechanisation is something the government, as well as the private sector and banks, can support. From a government perspective, we also want to offer financial incentives to farmers, especially women and youth farmers, so agriculture is viewed as an attractive career, and not just manual labour.

One issue we’ve experienced in Zambia is that our agriculture has been extremely limited to rainfed agriculture. Rainfed cannot bring us to a real revolution. If we want to take advantage of economies of scale and markets, particularly vegetable markets, we need year-round production. We’ve really championed this in the last year. And once we’ve increased production, we need storage from the local to the national level. In the next several years we intend to create an additional 300,000 metric tons of storage space. While this is part of the government’s agenda, it is also an opportunity for the private sector to invest in storage, as well as other things such as irrigation equipment, mechanisation and heavy machinery. We’ve just seen investment from Poland to create a tractor assembly plant here, and that’s because the government has created a conducive environment for the private sector to enter the market.

“The African Development Bank says agribusiness in Africa will be worth $1 trillion in the next 30 years. What we are selling in Zambia is the opportunity to be a part of that $1 trillion”

What sorts of investment opportunities in agriculture are available for international investors? What would you highlight to British investors considering this sector in Zambia?

I think the first thing to highlight is investment in agricultural production. We have seen Israeli, Chinese, Saudi Arabians, Japanese, and many other international investors partnering with local organisations on agricultural projects. There is a lot of interest. They see Zambia’s potential; they see us as a sleeping giant. Well, the giant is now awake and discovering what it can achieve. With partners, we can work towards our goals for Zambian agriculture: efficient production, mechanised production, irrigation, etc. The land is available — the government has set aside one million hectares of land for investment — and that land is open to both Zambians and foreign investors.  We are very interested in ensuring there is efficient usage of water.  In northern Zambia, we have a lot of investment in farm blocks for tea, coffee, sugar and maize. In western Zambia, there are farm blocks for cashew nuts, fish farming and cattle. In eastern Zambia, sunflowers, cotton, tobacco, ground nuts and other high-value products are being farmed. Water is available.

We have a number of incentives to offer potential investors, including a zero rating on agricultural machinery, and with investments of $500,000 or more you can negotiate an investment license, which comes with a number of additional incentives. You can invest here and repatriate profits with no repercussions, another enormous advantage. However our biggest asset is our people. We have a more than 70 per cent literacy rate, and English is the official language. We have a big country in the middle of the SADC region, as well as within the COMESA region — there are 600 million people in this market. We are landlocked, but we consider ourselves land rich. We are a stable country. We’ve never had a war — we have held many successful elections, and are currently in our sixth presidential administration. We are stable and resilient. The credit rating agency, Fitch, recently reiterated its position that Zambia is stable in spite of the economic challenges we’ve gone through the last two years. We are transferring that good will and resilience into agriculture now.

AGRICULTURE

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“They see us as a sleeping giant. Well, the giant is now awake and discovering what it can achieve”

Can you tell us about Zambia’s position as a non-GMO country?

Zambia’s position is we are non-GMO, particularly when it comes to food crops. We are the number one, or close to the top, country producing non-GMO white maize. However, we are not an island and we are following the debate closely. Our position is that we are non-GMO, but what we want to do is hear the facts. We do not want to be blackmailed into a position, but we are happy to have a dialogue.

 

What legacy would you like to leave behind as minister of agriculture?

I would like us to be remembered for bringing true agricultural transformation, particularly to rural Zambia through our farm block agenda, and creating the requisite infrastructure to allow agriculture to flourish. Currently very minimal agriculture happens in rural areas and when it does, it is very rudimentary because it’s not supported by the necessary infrastructure. The government is committed to developing the infrastructure needed to help rural farmers. Whether it is the government alone, the private sector or public-private partnerships, I believe we have taken a first step to truly create a Green Revolution, and that should be the legacy we are remembered for.

 

Is there anything else that you would like to highlight?

The African Development Bank says that agribusiness in Africa will be worth $1 trillion in the next 30 years. What we are selling in Zambia is the opportunity to be a part of that $1 trillion. We want to see sustainable investment in agriculture. We want to see partnership with Zambian citizens. We want to see public-private partnerships. We have a lot of assets including land, water, great people, widely spoken English, and our laws are based on Common Law. Of course, there are also a number of incentives such as annual budgetary support, investment licenses, and no penalties for profit repatriation. The Zambian market and the markets of our neighbours become available when you invest in Zambia. I urge prospective investors to take a chance on our country.

This interview was conducted before a ministerial reshuffle took place in early 2018.

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