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Country profile - Zambia


Once at the forefront of the 'Green Revolution', with hybrid maize yields breaking record charts in the 1960s, Zambia has vast agricultural potential. Yet despite a favourable climate, fertile land and 40 per cent of the water resources in the entire southern African region, that potential is yet to be fully tapped. Of the 58 per cent of land suitable for agricultural production, only 14 per cent is currently under cultivation. And despite bumper maize harvests, agriculture makes up only 20 per cent of GDP while employing roughly 85 per cent of the population.

Part of the reason for Zambia's lacking agricultural productivity is heavy dependence on copper - the country is Africa's biggest producer and as a result the sector has traditionally been prioritised above agriculture in terms of investment. The privatisation of state-owned copper mines, high copper prices and foreign investment have all bolstered the economy with strong GDP growth at about six per cent in recent years. But over 60 per cent of the country's 13 million people still live in poverty and rely on smallscale subsistence farming for a livelihood.

Hills, plateaus and abundant water

Despite bumper maize harvests, agriculture makes up only 20 per cent of GDP (© Georgina Smith)
Despite bumper maize harvests, agriculture makes up only 20 per cent of GDP
© Georgina Smith

Landlocked in the Southern Africa region, Zambia is bordered by Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country is divided into three main agro-ecological regions: the dry south-east where an abundance of acacia trees grow; the central region stretching east to west - the most agriculturally productive with higher rainfall; and the third region to the north which receives the highest rainfall and is suitable for cultivating rice, cassava, pineapples and bananas.

Smallscale producers in Zambia are vulnerable to increasingly extreme weather shocks such as drought or flooding. Such climatic shocks cost, on average, one percentage point of national GDP annually. Other challenges include under-investment in agricultural infrastructure, such as irrigation, and government policies which have traditionally limited private sector participation and distorted agricultural markets.

Maize is a staple crop, the majority cultivated by smallscale farmers (© WFP)
Maize is a staple crop, the majority cultivated by smallscale farmers

Adding value and flower power

Staple crops, including maize, sorghum, rice, millet and cassava, are cultivated mostly by smallscale farmers, although the government has been urged by the private sector to liberalise the staple crop market to attract commercial investment. Commercial farmers produce a fraction of Zambia's maize for example, and are increasingly abandoning the crop in favour of more lucrative cash crop alternatives such soya beans: commercial maize production is predicted to fall 80 per cent from 350,000 tonnes in 2011 to 60,000 tonnes in 2012.

Zambia's major export crops include tobacco (98 per cent of which is exported), cotton, tea and coffee. According to the Zambia Coffee Growers' Association, poor weather and lack of access to long-term finance for growth has in recent years forced production to fall, but smallholder schemes to improve green coffee bean production techniques are expected to increase revenue and boost reinvestment in the sector.

Floriculture is one of Zambia's fastest growing export industries, exporting about US$40million of roses every year. Over 60 varieties of fresh roses, such as Tropical amazon and Red calypso, account for 95 per cent of production, with the rest made up of summer flowers such as amaranthus and bupleurium. The sector employs more than 6,000 people of whom half are women. Leather and skins - mostly cattle but also crocodile, ostrich and snake skins - are also popular exports, both regionally and internationally, particularly to Italy, China and Hong Kong where they are used in fashion garments and footwear.

Sweeping change and policy reform

Chikanda has been highlighted for boosted government investment (© Georgina Smith)
Chikanda has been highlighted for boosted government investment
© Georgina Smith

The recent elections held in September 2011 which swept the Patriotic Front government, led by Michael Chilufya Sata, to power have seen agriculture made a top priority along with tourism, gemstone mining and hydro-power. Investment in the sector has been significantly boosted in the outlined national budget, which proposes increased private sector involvement and boosted finance for reform, including in improved operation of the maize-buying authority, the Food Reserve Agency (FRA).

One major shift outlined in new agricultural policy is a shift from maize as a staple crop towards oilseed and legumes, cassava, sweet potato, finger millet, wheat, paddy rice and sorghum, to better suit area-specific rainfall conditions and irrigation potential. Decentralised departments have been outlined to research and pilot tailored extension services.

There is also renewed emphasis in cultivating crops used in industrial processing such as barley and non-traditional exports such as cotton lint. Local wild fruits and indigenous edible flowers such as the orchid tuber known locally as 'chikanda,' (Disasatiria) - a gelling agent for a groundnut savoury cake - and high quality organic honey have also been highlighted for boosted government investment.

Potential bread basket

More extreme weather events are occuring in the country (© Georgina Smith/UNICEF)
More extreme weather events are occuring in the country
© Georgina Smith/UNICEF

Despite huge potential, challenges remain, and promises to reform the agricultural sector are yet to be fully delivered and implemented. With increasing demand for fuel, food and livestock fodder as population growth continues to rise, deforestation will be among priorities for the government to tackle. Forests rich in biodiversity diminished ten per cent between 1992 and 2007, and this, together with climate change, remain major concerns.

The cost of fuel and fertiliser, which tripled from around US$400 per tonne in 2005 to US$1,300 per tonne in 2008, is having a significant impact on smallholder production. However, with boosted investment in agriculture and policy reform in the pipeline, there is cautious optimism that the country is on the path to realising its potential as a bread basket for the region.

Statistical information
  • Country: Republic of Zambia
  • Capital: Lusaka
  • Area: 752,618 sq km
  • Population: 14,309,466 (2012 est.)
  • Population growth rate: 3% (2012 est.)
  • Life expectancy: 53 (2012 est.)
  • Ethnic groups: African 99.5% (includes Bemba, Tonga, Chewa, Lozi, Nsenga, Tumbuka, Ngoni, Lala, Kaonde, Lunda, and other African groups), other 0.5%
  • Languages: Bemba (official) 30.1%, Nyanja (official) 10.7%, Tonga (official) 10.6%, Lozi (official) 5.7%, Chewa 4.9%, Nsenga 3.4%, Tumbuka 2.5%, Lunda (official) 2.2%, Kaonde (official) 2%, Lala 2%, Luvale (official) 1.7%, English (official) 1.7%, other 22.5%
  • Inflation: 8.4% (2011 est.)
  • GDP purchasing power parity: US$21.93 billion (2011 est.)
  • GDP per capita: US$1,600 (2011 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 21.5%; industry: 35.2%; services: 43.4% (2011 est.)
  • Land use: arable land: 6.99%; permanent crops: 0.04%; other: 92.97% (2005)
  • Major industries: copper mining and processing, construction, foodstuffs, beverages, chemicals, textiles, fertiliser, horticulture
  • Agricultural products: maize, sorghum, rice, peanuts, sunflower seed, vegetables, flowers, tobacco, cotton, sugarcane, cassava, coffee, cattle, goats, pigs, poultry, milk, eggs, hides
  • Natural resources: copper, cobalt, zinc, lead, coal, emeralds, gold, silver, uranium, hydropower
  • Export commodities: copper, cobalt, electricity, tobacco, flowers, cotton
  • Export partners: Switzerland 51.3%, China 20.3%, South Africa 9.2%, Democratic Republic of the Congo 4.6% (2010)

Date published: May 2012


Have your say

No dought Zambia is only the country not in whole the africa... (posted by: M.S.Baidwan)


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