Zambia’s agricultural sector, with its reliance in small-scale farmers, is in crisis

George Allision holds a hard clump of earth in his hands weighing about five kilograms
George Allision holds a hard clump of earth in his hands weighing about five kilograms

Zambia’s agricultural sector, with its reliance in small-scale farmers, is in crisis. The government is pinning its hopes on foreign expertise and capital. One German-Zambian firm has taken up the challenge.

George Allision holds a hard clump of earth in his hands weighing about five kilograms. He says the soil on this uncultivated land is acidic, lacking in nutrients and has suffered from erosion by the elements. Allison was born in Zimbabwe and studied agriculture in the UK. Together with two friends and the German holding company Sapinda, he founded Amatheon, a German-Zambian enterprise. Sapinda is investing $50 million (37 million euros) in the new firm.

They leased 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) in Big Concession, a 260,000 hectare block of land in Zambia which so far has not been farmed very heavily. Amatheon began growing wheat and soya beans there in 2012. Allision said the traditional ploughing methods had exhausted the soil and left it clumpy. “To improve the quality of the soil, I’m having to spend a lot of money on irrigation and power generation,” Allison said. “I am going to be farming this land for 20 to 30 years. I cannot simply move elsewhere like the small-scale farmers, because I have invested too much capital” he added.

Clearing the land, removing acidity from the soil

Amatheon is having to invest considerable sums of money in the soil in northern Zambia to so that one day large quantities of soya beans and wheat can be harvested there. Experts are being called in to assess much ground water is available for irrigation, farm laborers are spreading lime so as to neutralize the acidity in the soil and contractors are being brought in to clear square kilometer after square kilometer of bush. Afterwards the soil has to be cultivated with great care.

Amatheon is using modern farming machinery to work large expanses of Zambian land

A camp serves company’s provisional headquarters. Allison is proud of his fleet of agricultural vehicles – new excavators, bulldozers, tractors and 15 meter wide transplanter which can cut furrows, sow seed and apply fertilizer at a considerable pace. Amatheon wants to farm its huge tracts of land as efficiently as possible.

Foreign agricultural investors are often regarded in poor countries as unscrupulous land-grabbers who drive away the small-scale farmer. But in Zambia such a clash of interests occurs only infrequently. Firms such as Amatheon generally lease land that belongs to state-owned farms that have fallen into disuse. The big problem faced by Zambia’s small-scale farmers is that they can only farm very small plots of land, because their farming practices are so labor intensive and inefficient. Amatheon wants to help the farmers switch to more modern methods, which is in its own interests as well as that of the farmers.

Improving yields and conserving the soil

“Because we are operating here, large quantities of seed and fertilizer are being brought into the region, which we can offer the small-scale farmers at competitive prices,” said Allison. “And because of our large freight capacity, we can buy soya beans and maize off the small-scale farmers at a higher price than they would get elsewhere. Together with our suppliers, we are training them how to maximize their harvests.”


But that is only possible if farmers – like Amatheon – treat the soil with respect and rotate their crops. The land is not ploughed for sowing but is slit open and remains covered with organic matter in order to boost the fertility. Fertilizer and pesticides are used at the right time and in precise doses. Amatheon employs an advisor who can explain to the small-scale farmers the principles behind this method of crop growing.

“Amatheon has already created quite a few jobs,” said Aaaron Kamalando, District Secretary from the nearby town of Mumbwa. “And a large share of the levies they pay go back into the district,” he said. Zambia is divided into nine provinces, each of which is subdivided into districts. Mumbwa District is located in Central Province.

“The firm is also creating infrastructure – this helps to boost the local economy. It is also giving small-scale farmers the opportunity to become more commercial. In the past, none of the farms here were able to develop, which explains why it is so difficult to guarantee food security in the region,” Kamalando said. He hopes this will change now that Amatheon has arrived.



  1. These soils (ultisols / oxisols and localised alfisols) have always been acidic which gives rise to Aluminium toxicity. It has little to do with small-scale farming practices. Acid soils are natural to the miombo forest ecosystem. The Big Concession also the Luswishi Concession were pristine forest until being cleared to make way for commercial scale real-estate agriculture, some 10,000 ha in Lufwanyama if I am not wrong. While there is a place for intensive high-tech agriculture (on land that has already been cleared and on which only scrubby secondary low biodiversity forest is regrowing), the correct assistance (logistics, training, finance) to small-scale farmers could as an alternative triple their yields sustainably. Its hard to understand what is sustainable about the intensive use of fossil fuel based fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides, potential depletion of groundwater and leaching that accompanies intensive agriculture. Its also important to consider livelihoods, ownership and long term sustainability in the rather broadest sense rather than simple job creation. Once fully mechanised a large scale intensive farm does not employ as many people as a productive small-scale farm. While there is no doubt there will be some positive splillovers to surrounding small-scale farmers, there is very little evidence globally that intensive monoculture on agriculture on tropical soils, with concident herbicide and pesticide use, total removal of vegetation over vast areas (leading to wind erosion) is sustainable. I wonder whether the same investment, targetted correctly to raise small-scale farmer productivity through innovative bio-intensive methods could not generate equal returns in a less environmentally damaging way?