Out in the field

On our first day of work, my Zambian counterpart, Chris, and I journeyed two and a half hours to our business director’s home and production site in Lusaka West.

She runs her small company from there along with her co-director and son, Rodney, and three (ish) members of staff. It’s a bit of a trek away.

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We boarded a minibus just after 7am in Woodlands, which didn’t head into town before 19 people and a baby had been crammed into the vehicle.

Lack of personal space aside, the so-called “call boy” must be the first unfriendly Zambian I’ve met, routinely doling out change and glares, and contributing to the tired-but-used-to-it cramped atmosphere which featured many frustrated sighs every time the bus took the “scenic” route to pick up more passengers.

After a long hour’s journey into town, in Kulima Tower bus station I was met with frequent “muli bwanji” greetings from an array of strangers and even a man shaking my hand saying it’s been a long time (who are you sir?). I get called muzungu and pointed at most places I go, but I was sure relieved to have Chris guide me through the stares and chaos.

The more peaceful and organised City Market bus station.

We walked from Kulima Tower to City Market bus station, where at 8am everyone was just setting up shop for the day: wheeling long trolleys with perched boxes of apples or old tyres and unraveling sheets full of second-hand clothes or wooden crafts.

Morning market setup.

Once we got to our second station, we could follow signs to get the right bus going westwards, after conferring and confirming the destination with drivers and street vendors alike.

Man with goats at City Market station.

My first experience at the hectic bus station the week before had left me disoriented and a little intimidated by the bustling commuters and yells for destinations. Now I’ve come to realise there is a lot of order to be found in this chaos; we were continually pointed in the right direction, and buses leave frequently and actually want you onboard (in the UK bus drivers don’t care and you have to make the occasional mad dash after them).

Transport routes are often indirect and reliant on word-of-mouth, but there is something about cramming into overloaded minibuses and, as Chris says, “rubbing shoulders” with Zambians that makes me feel like I’m experiencing some of the real Zambia. “Real” Zambia to me means getting an idea of how the majority of locals live and get around.

On our second bus, the driver hot-wired it to start. No surprises there. Chris and I sat in the front seat with a full road’s view of Mumbwa road stretching out of the city.

Lusaka West misleadingly sounds like it’s still in the city, in Lusaka. It’s not. Mumbwa road took us far out west to dusty roads and dry farmlands with the odd scattering of schoolchildren and police road checks.

After an hour on the bus, we got off in the middle of nowhere. We made our way down a dirt road and came upon Priscilla’s farm.

Her pink house.

Our main objectives for the day were, number one, to complete a business diagnostic report and, number two, fill out a baseline survey with skills audit.

The business diagnostic looks at the company’s structure and management, their processing practices and products, sales and marketing, financial management, as well as triple bottom line impact. Triple bottom line is an accounting framework to measure social, environmental and economic impact, also known as people, planet and profit. TBL means that we can evaluate how socially responsible and sustainable the business is.

We also chatted about the main challenges the company is facing. They need to finalise their product ingredients in order to obtain certification from the Zambia Bureau of Standards (ZABS), which allows them to get into major supermarkets. They are also seeking funding to build larger-scale facilities and establish a factory with new machinery and several production lines. So we are helping them grow, to increase their capacity for higher sales, income generation and local employment.

Priscilla and Chris leading the way to the farm.

After a long chat and some ice tea, we went for a little tour of the surrounding land and walked to the neighbouring farm, which supplies them with chillies, garlic and tomatoes.

As I mentioned here, the agribusiness I’m working with processes locally-grown fruits and vegetables into chutneys, orange marmalade and peanut butter.

Their products and newly-designed labeling.

We then went to a second farm, a short busride down the road, to see the crops they grow and supply. I was introduced to a Zambian vegetable called impwa, which belongs to the eggplant family.

Wheelbarrows of impwa.

Chris, who has a degree in Agriculture, served as a great guide around the farms. It was an eye-opening experience for me to literally be out in the field and see how rural smallholder farmers subsist and survive, how they follow seasons and know how to plant what when and where. 

Zambia’s seasons fall broadly into three periods: rainy season (December to April), cool dry season (May to August) and hot dry season (September to November). We are just emerging from the hottest driest months, and it shows in the landscape and agricultural potential, with most farmers trying to predict increasingly unpredictable weather.

Out in the eggplant field.

Chris pointed out different types of plants, especially teaching me about moringa trees (also known as “miracle trees”), whose leaves are known for their high levels of iron, calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin C. A spoonful of moringa powder a day keeps the doctor away.

Priscilla and her neighbour on our walkabout.

Much of Zambia’s farming remains subsistence-style, relying on seasonal rains. Efforts are being made to increase yields by introducing techniques such as crop rotation, inter-cropping and irrigation, as well as soil-improving crops such as velvet beans and hemp. Groundnuts actually fix nitrogen in soil, so my little company can boast a higher environmental impact.

Showing us eggplant fresh off the vine.

One of the positive sides to agribusinesses is that they link farmers to a market. In Zambia, the markets for common crops like tomatoes and mangoes can be unorganised (Chris tells me), where farmers often aren’t linked to processers or market sellers and as such don’t realise the potential value of their crops. This results in a lot of food waste and lost income.

My agribusiness sources tomatoes, mangoes, chillies, garlic and ginger from the Lusaka West area. It gets its groundnuts (aka peanuts) from Eastern Province in Zambia, and its oranges come from Zimbabwe.

Chris and Priscilla talk agriculture.

Buying from rural smallholder farmers not only leads to an increased income for them, but also increased income stability. Income stability gives farmers the ability to plan ahead, budget and save money. It’s tantamount to understanding poverty and one of the aspects the Fair Trade foundation emphasises when establishing links down to farmer level and more transparent supply chains.

Over 80% of Zambians work in agriculture, so it’s an important sector from a socioeconomic point of view. Currently, only 20% of Zambia’s arable land is cultivated, but hopefully with more efficient farming practices and stable market linkages, agribusiness can have a positive economic impact in the sector.

As we walked to get the bus back to Lusaka, this little boy up a tree waved goodbye in traditional friendly Zambian manner. Until next time (when we make peanut butter)!

Boy in tree.
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