Growing pulses to generate new income among farmers in Zambia

This blog post was written by Francisca Badilla, FAO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean.

In March 2016, I travelled to Chipata, the capital of the Eastern Province of Zambia to work as a volunteer with a social enterprise called Zasaka that supports small-scale farmers to generate lasting incomes through pulse and legume seeds production and marketing. The main crops that the farmers produce are cowpea, soybean and groundnut.

Its co-founders Sunday Silungwe and Carl Jensen realized there was a big gap in the seed industry, especially for pulses and legumes, as there were no good quality seed suppliers. This, along with the willingness to help farmers increase their incomes, led them to found Zasaka. 

Sunday Silungwe points out that “the benefits of growing pulses and legumes are immense for the farmers, the market and the environment: it provides nutritional value for their dietary needs and the diversifies food options consume in the household; it supplies a gap of quality seeds for the market; it helps to generate more incomes for the farmers as the production get a high value in the market; it is a crop that gives back nitrogen to the soil and it can improve its fertility and reduces the use of fertilizers, which is one of the aims as the farmers don’t have the capability to afford the bags they need for the fields”

Zambia is characterized by farmers who mainly grow maize. Because of the enormous production and the fluctuating demand, the prices vary and the farmers don’t have a secure influx of money. With the incorporation of pulses and legumes into their fields, they diversify the options and get secure access to markets as Zasaka guarantees the purchase of the farmers’ seeds above prevailing grain market prices.  Zasaka packages and processes the pulse and legume seeds to add value and commercializes them in domestic markets, such as seed companies, NGOs, government agencies, farmer groups and companies producing value-added products. 

In order to obtain a high quality seed production and to educate farmers in the production of pulse and legume crops, Zasaka has developed a model to upgrade normal farmers into agricultural extension workers. Through an acute selection process, Zasaka selects hard-working farmers with leadership skills who are willing to train others and become Private Extension Agents (PEAs).

The PEAs are trained during one month where they learn different aspects of agriculture such as structures, methods, techniques, technologies, budgeting and productivity. They follow-up their training every week and they share with the farmers what they have learned.  The key to long-term farm profitability is in the health of the soil. In their trainings, Zasaka promotes practices and rotations of crops that increase the long-term health of the soil. To achieve this Zasaka encourages the farmers to grow two complementary crops: maize and legume.

By the time I was in Chipata, two trainings were done to the PEAs. The objective of the trainings were learn how to face the different stages of harvest and post-harvest in order to maximize yields and profit, and identify good practices. The trainings were held in the Zasaka field training center the POD (Product Operational Depot),  this also acts as a shop for farmers to access inputs, an aggregation point for Zasaka seed, a distribution point and a storage shed. The POD is located in a village called Pwate in West Chipata. The trainings were done in Nyanja, one of their primary languages, by Zasaka agronomist.

The normal Zambian extension ratio is quite an array, one government extension officer to about 5000 farmers. Zasaka tries to make this more feasible by enhancing and capitalizing on farmer contact. The Zasaka PEAs work with a ratio of one PEA per 40 farmers, currently Zasaka works with 10 PEAs (3 women and 7 men). The PEAs accompany the farmers in all the farming processes: preparing the land, teaching them how to plant, until the harvest and storage. They ensure that the farmers are using the correct methods and they respond to the questions the farmers have. Uniquely, the PEAs also learn from the farmers and they come up with different solutions to help the farmers’ production. Every farmer sets individual goals with their PEAs and then works to achieve them together.

The PEAs are employed by Zasaka and receive a monthly payment throughout the production season. When the farmers produce enough to be purchased by the Zasaka’s program, the PEAs get a commission based on what the farmers have sold. This sustains the PEAs and allows them to continuously grow with the farmers, so the success of the farmers and the PEAs depends on a coordinated effort among them and Zasaka.

The farmers get a loan of seed and fertilizer provided by Zasaka, this loan is paid back in form of a crop. Zasaka receives the loan payback of the crop they produce. Based on the amount of the loan, the farmer pays back completely and Zasaka then buys 100% of what the farmers remaining produce.

During this year, Zasaka intends to keep working with the 10 initial PEAs and 400 farmers, and recruit more to have a total of 40 PEAs and 2000 farmers. In five years, Zasaka looks to work with 50,000 farmers.

Currently, Zasaka is working on branding and packaging its own seed under a new brand that represents the work of all the farmers and PEAs. In that respect, Zasaka’s long term vision is to expand its quality legume seed market beyond Zambian borders and increase the incomes of many more farmers.

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The views expressed here belong to the speaker and do not necessarily represent FAO’s views, positions, strategies or opinions.

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