On the road to greater yields

Agricultural mechanization boosts production and incomes for Zambia's smallholder farmers

While Zambia is rich in natural resources, less than a third of its surface area is used for agriculture, and low productivity is an overarching challenge. Sustainable agricultural mechanization can be a game-changer for many farmers and for the sector itself. © Zambia Ministry of Agriculture/ Vanwick Zulu


In many parts of the world, agricultural mechanization is an underutilized means of producing food. Done sustainably, mechanization has the potential to raise productivity, improve working conditions and incomes, generate new entrepreneurial opportunities, allow for more careful crop and livestock management and reduce food losses and waste. Yet, many barriers hinder smallholders from adopting mechanization, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Zambia is a case in point.

Farming is the main source of income for the majority of the approximately 20 million people living in this landlocked country, where smallholder farmers are the main producers of staple food crops such as maize, millets and cassava.

However, while rich in natural resources, less than a third of its surface area is devoted to agriculture, and low productivity remains a serious challenge.

For Zambia, therefore, mechanization can be a game-changer.

Zambian agricultural households equipped with tractors almost doubled their income by cultivating a much larger area of their land. ©Zambia Ministry of Agriculture /Vanwick Zulu

Connecting buyers and suppliers

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) presents a case study in its State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) 2022 report, which shows that Zambian smallholder agricultural households equipped with tractors almost doubled their income by cultivating a much larger area of their land. Moreover, despite halving the amount of work required per hectare, the expanded production necessitated an increase of hired labour for all non-mechanized tasks. This contradicts the idea that mechanization takes away jobs. Finally, the shift from family labour to hired labour reduced the burden on women and children, giving the latter more opportunity to attend school.

However, in Zambia, many smallholder farmers are unaware of the benefits of mechanization. And even when they are, financial constraints can prevent them from purchasing the equipment or accessing affordable mechanization services.

This is where the Sustainable Intensification of Smallholder Farming Systems in Zambia (SIFAZ) project steps in.

Funded by the European Union and implemented by FAO, in collaboration with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre and the Zambian Ministry of Agriculture, SIFAZ has partnered with private sector suppliers to promote knowledge about mechanization and link them with farmers by hosting a series of roadshows and demonstrations around the country.

Field demonstrations of the machinery and equipment illustrated how effective appropriate agricultural mechanization can be to farm operations. Crucially, these farmer visitors also received affordable financing options to make this equipment more easily accessible to them.

SIFAZ acts as a broker between buyer and supplier, so that "when you cut the deal, it is a fair deal,” Geoffrey Siulemba, SIFAZ National Project Coordinator, told farmers during one such roadshow.

“In the past, we used hands to plant and hand hoes to cultivate the land and weed. These are very laborious activities as we suffered in this type of work," said Lilian Shambuluma, a farmer from Luwingu District in northern Zambia. "Now that I have been introduced to mechanization, I believe I will cultivate at least four hectares of beans.”

Some of the most popular machinery and equipment on display included shellers, oil expellers, two-wheeled "walking tractors" and four-wheeled tractors with up to 75 horsepower, which fit the circumstances of smallholders and keep greenhouse gas emissions to a minimum. ©Zambia Ministry of Agriculture/Kebby Chipunza

The overwhelming turnout by farmers who attended the roadshows confirmed that there is great interest in mechanization.

The initiative has also resonated with the Zambian government.

“We want to cross the poverty line, and we will not cross the poverty line with hoe and human power. We need animal power. We need machine power,” Zambian Minister of Agriculture Reuben Mtolo told farmers at the national launch of the mechanization roadshows.

The project has also supported the Zambian government to formulate a national agricultural mechanization strategy. The strategy addresses the common agricultural mechanization challenges, helping to achieve national food security goals.

Initiated in 2019, the SIFAZ project operates in five provinces of Zambia, representing the country’s three major agroecological regions. To date, SIFAZ has reached and worked with more than 17 000 smallholder farmers. It aims to reach out to an additional 44 000 over the next three years, scaling up sustainable food production and building resilience in food systems, with an additional focus on climate change adaptation and mitigation measures.

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2. Zero hunger, 8. Decent work and economic growth, 12. Responsible consumption and production