LUSAKA, Jan 2 - White Zimbabwean farmers who sought refuge in Zambia, have helped the country pull out of a crippling food shortage that saw millions of people relying on food aid last season.
The landowners were forced off their properties in Zimbabwe during the fast-track land reform programme that began in 2000. Over 100 of them have since settled in Mkushi, a fertile maize-growing area in central Zambia that is favoured by commercial farmers. The Zimbabweans either rent land for farming from the locals, or go into partnership with owners who do not have the capacity to till huge tracts of land.
The Zambia Investment Centre (ZIC) says it has issued certificates to 31 Zimbabweans to allow them to begin commercial farming.
These farmers, having had their fingers burnt once, are not in a hurry to put down roots in Zambia just yet. But as one of the migrants, Jimmy Stewart, says: "It's farming that we know and do best. So we just want to see where the land lies, if you will excuse the pun, before we apply for permits and licenses and buy land."
Deputy Agriculture Minister Chance Kabaghe has nothing but praise for the farmers, even though their arrival prompted anxiety amongst Zambians - and some discomfort in relations between Lusaka and Harare.
"People saw them as the enemy, seeking refuge in Zambia. Because they were white, people were also scared that the history of racism would resurface. Even people in government thought there should be solidarity (with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe), and we should refuse them (entry)," says Kabaghe.
"But we saw them as potential investors who could improve our food security. We have now been vindicated."
His boss, Agriculture Minister Mundia Sikatana, is more grudging with accolades. He explains that Zambia, reeling from the effects of two successive droughts, had a shortfall of 635,000 metric tonnes of grain last year. Food prices rocketed and 2.9 million people were in need of assistance.
"This season we were determined to prioritise agriculture with timely input distribution," he said.
The government continued to support more than 150,000 local farmers with subsidised maize seed and fertiliser. It also specified that commercial farmers, both local and foreign, had to put at least ten percent of their acreage into maize production to ensure Zambia did not suffer another grain shortage.
There is no figure to show exactly how much maize Zimbabwean farmers produced as a result of this directive. But, some reports indicate that they grew over 70 percent of the maize needed in Zambia.
ZIC notes in its end-of-year report that all the Zimbabwean farmers awarded licenses had also started producing tobacco and wheat. "They have what it takes to undertake various farming enterprises and we would like more farmers of the calibre of Zimbabwean farmers to invest in agriculture," it said.
While acknowledging the farming prowess of the Zimbabweans, local farmers complain they had an unfair advantage.
"I do not want to sound petulant - I am happy that we have a bumper harvest and do not need food aid. But I feel a little peeved because we (local) farmers have been made to look incompetent. There are reasons the Zimbabweans had such a good crop," Thrifty Stephenson, a Zambian farmer, told IPS.
He says the Zimbabwean farmers had collateral for loans from local and international financial institutions, while some also brought equipment and machinery with them. This gave them a "leg up" when they arrived in Zambia. "We are not talking refugees here. We are talking well-heeled business people," he says.
The Standard Chartered Bank of Zambia, for example, gave loans to more than 20 Zimbabwean farmers who had settled in Zambia, to acquire existing farms or buy land. The bank's executive director of finance, Brighton Ngoma, says his institution had set up an agricultural unit to help boost the sector. The money being lent out was from the European Investment Bank and from Standard Chartered itself.
Local farmers were also supposed to have benefited from the funds, but discussions about this matter are still underway with the Zambia National Farmers Union.
"It's not that we do not have confidence in the local farmers. We need to make sure that we protect our investment and also attain our objective to increase agricultural production. Already we are seeing the benefits of our lending to Zimbabwean farmers, because the good harvest has helped reduce inflation as well as stabilise the foreign exchange," said Ngoma.
President Levy Mwanawasa announced recently that government would revitalise farming through agricultural financing, tax exemptions for imported equipment and low power tariffs. The government also wants to revive co-operative banks that lend money to farmers at favourable rates, and national marketing boards to buy their crops.
Stewart, who has a 10-acre farm leased from a local resident, was reluctant to criticise existing agricultural policies. But he agreed that it was difficult to make commercial farming viable in Zambia. He cited high electricity tariffs, duties on equipment and the lack of a good lending and marketing policy. "Basically we came equipped with our own money, some equipment and good relations with international banks and donors. So we are not affected by those problems."
On the positive side, says Stewart, there is a steady and reliable supply of manual labour, abundant land and water resources. Forty seven percent of Zambian land is suitable for various types of crops.
Government appears to be keeping an eye on the Zimbabweans. "The minister (Sikatana) visited us here, I think, just to make sure we were doing what we said we would do, and was quite happy with our output. So for the time being, things are looking good," Stewart says.
Kabaghe is confident that more Zimbabwean farmers will come when they realise Zambia welcomes investors, and that it does not have the land-ownership problems that have beset other countries in the region.
Meanwhile Zimbabwe is experiencing a debilitating food shortage for the second year running - something that analysts have ascribed to drought, and the drop in food production caused by the land distribution programme. More than half the country's population will require emergency food aid this year, according to the World Food Programme.