On arrival from France on 24 June after witnessing Zambia strike a deal to restructure $6.3bn in debt owed to governments abroad, including China, Hichilema told a thunderous crowd at the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport that a number of Zambians own land but “produce nothing”.
Hichilema, who visited Rwanda on 20-21 June, said he was impressed with Rwandan farmers producing a lot of crops on small pieces of land in the mountainous central African country.
Land with no farms
Rwanda is about 26,338km² while Zambia is 752,614km² with 28,420km² officially declared suitable for growing crops.
“My colleague told me farms in Rwanda [range in sizes between] 5 acres and 10 acres. Somebody who has 100 acres, has a very big farm,” says Hichilema, referring to Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
“I told him that most of my colleagues sit on 20 acres as residents as they produce nothing,” Hichilema adds.
Hichilema’s address confirmed an earlier social media post in which Kagame said that during the two-day state visit in Kigali, the two presidents discussed trade and agriculture production in Zambia.
But Hichilema’s offer to attract farmers from outside Zambia is irking critics who accuse the regime of giving away land to foreigners at the expense of citizens.
“We were giving land to Kenyans, now we are even giving Rwandese more land instead of empowering our people. What does Rwanda want to grow in Zambia that Zambians can’t grow? Empower Zambians to grow crops and sell abroad,” Given Katuta, an independent lawmaker, tells The Africa Report.
“What is this where our government should go and make agreements without consulting us as the owners of this land? What type of agriculture are the Kenyan farmers or the people from Rwanda doing which our people cannot do,” she asks.
Former cabinet minister and public policy consultant Robert Sichinga said attracting foreign farmers through bilateral agreements “seems very strange”.
“If you cannot get your farmers to do it, how are you going to get other people to come and take the land away from you [to grow crops],” Sichinga says.
Land creates business
But Elijah Muchima, Zambia’s minister of land, tells The Africa Report the foreign farmers are being sought to help boost production on the various farming area that remain largely stalled.
During the past 15 years, Zambia has been pushing to establish a model farm in each of its 10 provinces to encourage economic diversification from copper and cobalt mining in a bid to create alternative revenue streams.
Except for the 155,000-hectare Nansanga farm in Central province, which has some semblance of development, the other nine provinces remain largely idle due to lack of capital.
The new government is treating agriculture as a business and not a social welfare scheme
Despite enjoying favourable climatic conditions for growing crops such as maize, wheat and soybeans, Zambia’s agriculture sector remains a largely subsistence undertaking dominated by government support to more than one million smallholders growing maize for food security by providing them with seeds and fertiliser.
Muchima says the new government is treating agriculture as a business and not a social welfare scheme supported by government subsidies and aid.
He adds that Zambia wants to leverage the foreign farmers to develop the farm blocks to help diversify the country’s over-dependency on mining.
“These farmers who are coming to invest in this land will create business,” Muchima says.
“These farmers will bring their own money, grow the crops here, process and export. Then export proceeds are providing the country with the balance of payment while also cementing our relationships with these countries. We can’t just go on depending on copper for exports.”
Muchima adds that by leasing land to foreign farmers, Zambia was not giving away land.
“There is no land that will be given away. We have a lot of land in Zambia and these farmers are coming to invest. And how can you give away land any way? Land is stationary,” says Muchima. “Where do you take land and taking it how? By land, by air or by rail? Let’s welcome this. With agriculture, you can’t go wrong; it will reduce poverty levels and create employment.”
Clear land policy needed
Unlike the Kenyan commercial farmers who grow maize in Zambia, it is not clear what crops the Rwandese farmers would grow.
The Food Reserve Agency (FRA) said demand for maize from East Africa was putting pressure on Zambia’s grain position. Countries such as Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan, which were previously not export destinations, are looking to the southern African country to source grain.
Jason Zyamba, a Lusaka economist said Zambia needs a clear policy on attracting foreign farmers to grow the agriculture sector. He tells The Africa Report that local farmers did not have the capacity to meet the growing regional demand for grain.
“I hope with this debt restructuring deal, the government can use the created fiscal space to raise productivity in the agriculture sector and take full advantage of the yawning markets in the region. You can’t grow agriculture through subsidising farmers and later these farmers have to again sell their crop to the government after harvest,” he says.
Foreign capital can have a positive impact on sectors. Zyamba said that the mining sector after privatisation is a good example.
“But the government must come up with a clear policy and communicate it broadly so that this notion of Zambians surrendering land to foreigners is not allowed to take root,” he adds.
There's more to this story
Get unlimited access to our exclusive journalism and features today. Our award-winning team of correspondents and editors report from over 54 African countries, from Cape Town to Cairo, from Abidjan to Abuja to Addis Ababa. Africa. Unlocked.
Already a a subscriber Sign In