LUSAKA, May 9 - Mkushi is one of the farming areas in the country that is endowed with great agricultural potential. However, one of the obstacles for the full development of this potential has been the lack of adequate electrical power for irrigation and other farming related activities.
But it is worth pointing out that Mkushi is just one among other farming blocks that are benefiting and others that stand to benefit from the rural electrification initiative.
The Government of Zambia through its efforts to promote and support agriculture has identified and targeted other farm blocks and areas in the country to be electrified.
These include Kaoma in Western Province, Nansanga in Serenje in Central Province, Kafubu on the Copperbelt and the Tazara corridor.
The Mkushi Farming Block has for a long time been considered Zambia's prime agricultural belt, contributing handsomely to the nation's food basket.
This contribution to the national food security is but just one of the predominantly two-fold contributions of the farming block to the nation.
But up until now, the farmers in this farming area have been limited to the utilisation of costly irrigation mechanisms, using diesel driven pumps.
This has been limiting areas under irrigation, but has subsequently been limiting the potential by the farmers to expand and diversify during the dry seasons.
It has long been the intention of the Zambian Government and Zesco to electrify the Mkushi Farming Block and plans to this effect were formulated as far back as the 1980s.
However, full-scale electrification could not be done in one stage due to the inability to raise all the necessary funds at once.
The first step to electrify the farm block was done in the 1980s when two 33 Kilovolts lines were constructed from Kapiri Mposhi to Mkushi and two substations of 33/11 Kilovolt, 2.5MVA each were constructed in the area.
The two substations were referred to as Farmers and Boma substations, which serviced the farming community and the Mkushi Boma centre, respectively.
With time, the power supplied by the two lines became insufficient, as farming activities in the area increased.
The electrification drive by the farmers has grown overtime. Other farmers could not be connected owing to the limited capacity of the power lines.
Recent institutional reforms in the Zambia's electrical energy sub-sector, coupled with a more enabling financial environment in the area of project financing and, most importantly, the request by the Government for Zesco to electrify Mkushi, after seeing the need to boost supply of sufficient and reliable power to the area, created a new impetus for the power utility to revisit the project.
In 2003, Zesco was directed to undertake the project and the corporation embarked on the construction of a 110 kilometers 66 kilovolts line from Serenje to Mkushi, as well as the construction of seven new advanced substations in the area.
The project also entailed the upgrading of the existing lines to address the problem of low voltage.
So far, the two major 33/11 KV, 2.5 MVA sub-stations have been constructed.
One along Great North Road at the road junction to Mkushi Boma and the other one near Chengelo school in the northeast of the farm block.
Also done within this period is the rehabilitation of the 33 Kilovolts line that goes to Mkushi Boma.
Additionally, an 11 Kilovolts line from the Farmers sub-station to Masebe farms has been upgraded from 50sqmm ACSR conductor to 100sqmm ACSR conductor.
Further, the 11 Kilovolts line has been extended within Mkushi Boma and to the northeast of the farm block to make available the service to more customers within the district and the farm block.
Within a year of the commencement of the project, 65 commercial farmers, 110 domestic customers, and 3 schools have been supplied with electricity.
In August 2004 the maximum demand for power increased by about 67 per cent.
Sally Grayvestain is one of the commercial farmers in the Mkushi Farming Block who, together with the likes of Chimsoro proprietor Costain Chilala, has benefited from the electrification project.
"Until 2002, when Zesco Limited supplied electricity to our farm, it was impossible for us to make any profit from the sale of our produce because irrigating our crops using diesel generators was too costly," Mrs Grayvestain said.
She said crops such as wheat and tobacco cannot be profitably grown without cheaper electricity powered irrigation in that wheat can only be grown in winter season.
She observed that irrigation using electricity had increased output for many farmers and that various crops could now be grown all year since irrigation also allowed for planting of crops before the beginning of the rain season.
Ms Grayvenstain added that the supply of electricity had also enabled the farmers to utilise electric dryers used to dry their crops, and also improved storage facilities such as cold rooms.
She further added that the living standard of farm workers has been uplifted as they enjoy electricity supply in their homes.
Mr Joseph Daka of Damust farm is yet another farmer who has benefited from the electrification project.
He said that he has recorded growth in his production level as he grows Soya beans, maize and wheat throughout the year.
"The electrification of the farm has improved and made affordable a number of farm operations especially irrigation, I am now able to double the crop and my income has considerably increased" said Mr Daka.
Mr Daka said that his farm though acquired in 1975 had not undergone any major expansion because it lacked electricity until 1996 when it was electrified.
Mr Daka also commended the New Deal Government for its initiative to empower the farmers through the electrification of the farm block and affording them special/discounted tariffs.
The success story of Mkushi electrification can now be seen as the revival of the irrigation-fed crops, some of which are now being grown throughout the year. Already, over 103 center pivots have been installed in the area.
Overall, there has been tremendous growth in productivity in the area with crops such as wheat and tobacco recording high increases, even before the project, expected to be completed by the end of this year, takes off.
This is an indication of heightened agricultural production and it is hoped that the Mkushi Farming Block in particular and district in general, would become even more relevant to the nation's quest to have sustainable food reserves, with the assured sustainable supply of power.
The author is Senior Manager Marketing & Public Relations at Zesco.