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Zambia: meeting a tall order

Backed by financial, educational and technological support, Fines Mulindi is now supplying the Royal Livingstone Hotel (Georgina Smith)
Backed by financial, educational and technological support, Fines Mulindi is now supplying the Royal Livingstone Hotel
Georgina Smith

Fines Mulindi, a smallscale farmer in Zambia's drought-prone Southern Province, steps carefully between neat rows of onions and okra ready for harvest. Tapping into the lucrative hotel catering supply chain, she has avoided a market dilemma facing millions of farmers across Africa - excessive supply of a few vegetables during certain seasons, leading to heart-breaking wastage and low prices. Backed by financial, educational and technological support, Mulindi is one of over 400 farmers supplying a wealthy neighbour: the five-star Royal Livingstone Hotel.

Historically, local farmers have rarely benefited from the lucrative tourism industry built around the Victoria Falls. But in 2006 two top-class hotels, built by the hotel chain Sun International, introduced a business model to replace imported fresh vegetables with those grown locally. This market-oriented enterprise, intended to cut hotel costs and source fresher produce, has also resulted in quality production education for local farmers.

Through training delivered by Agribusiness in Sustainable Natural African Plant Products (ASNAPP) - linked to Stellenbosch University in South Africa - and with funding from USAID, farmers belonging to 23 groups, including widows, the blind and those receiving palliative care, have collectively earned more than US$1 million supplying high-end markets. On a continent where, according to ASNAPP, 90 per cent of farmers are subsistence producers, the availability of year-round, non-traditional produce has also led to increased food security.

You get out what you put in

The boxes of fresh green beans, butternut squash, beetroot and cabbage have been grown to meet the specified requirements of Sun International, a hotel chain which includes the Royal Livingstone and the nearby Zambezi Sun. Yet in the past, limited capital and knowledge led to farmers planting cheaper vegetable varieties, neither disease resistant nor adaptable to climatic conditions, as ASNAPP agricultural extension officer, Loma Dinga, explains: "Some seeds were not available on the market, and farmers did not know they could exploit high-value crops. They didn't know that there were high-value varieties of cucumber, for example."

Loma Dinga advises farmers on which hybrid seeds to use and the crop management required (Georgina Smith)
Loma Dinga advises farmers on which hybrid seeds to use and the crop management required
Georgina Smith

An ASNAPP-led search to find new varieties of year-round quality produce was backed up by farmer trials. The process identified varieties ranging from disease resistant marrows suitable for out-of-season production, to tomato variety Star 9030, which offers the size and texture required by the hotels, while also being able to cope with Livingstone's extremes of temperature. To convince farmers to invest in growing improved, non-traditional vegetables, and to prove that a market was available for such produce, ASNAPP began by training farmers to initially supply just five per cent of the hotels' fresh vegetable demand.

A programme was put in place to advise farmers on which hybrid seeds to use and the crop management required. Community groups were also trained to manage a greenhouse, built near the hotels by Sun International. Here, hydroponic technology is used to cultivate lettuce, red and green peppers, marrow and leek, and profits are ploughed into a revolving fund which supplies loans to help farmers buy fertiliser or pesticide.

Stringent quality control and tracing systems, which allow problems to be dealt with at the source, have strengthened the farmers' reliability, a crucial factor in assuring the hotels that quantity and quality requirements can be met. Expectations are high: the growers must ensure that produce are blemish free, are well protected during transportation and can be supplied in different quantities at different times. "These farmers are responsible," says Newton Phiri, co-ordinator of the ASNAPP Livingstone programme. "They know everyone is checking - there are no shortcuts."

Teach a man to fish

Local farmers now supply 70 per cent of the hotel's fresh produce (Georgina Smith)
Local farmers now supply 70 per cent of the hotel's fresh produce
Georgina Smith

Three years since the project started, local farmers now supply 70 per cent of the hotel's fresh produce. Many have bank accounts to fund improvements such as drip irrigation technology, which enables year-round production. The Nsongwe group of widows, for example, reinvested US$4,000 of their profits in drip irrigation technology and last year earned an estimated US$21,000. This market-led system has also attracted entrepreneurs such as transporters, who bridge the gap in the supply-chain linking farmers and hotels.

ASNAPP has adopted the Confucian motto: "Give a man a fish, and he is fed for today. Teach him to fish, he is fed for a lifetime." With farmers who were once among Zambia's poorest, now putting food on the plates of its richest tourists and executives, the market-led model has already inspired other hotels to take on local suppliers, and similar systems are being explored by ASNAPP in neighbouring Botswana. Phiri, for one, is confident that farmers can sustain success. "If we pulled out tomorrow, farmers know the market - they would continue without doubt," he says.

Written by: Georgina Smith

Date published: January 2010

 

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