Beyond maize: exploring agricultural diversification in Zambia

Zambia has one of the world's highest rates of undernourishment: more than a third of children under five have stunted growth, and a quarter of adults are obese. The reason: the country's over-dependence on maize. A new report looks at how to increase crop diversity, support better nutrition and support resilience at local and national level.

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William Chilufya is regional advocacy manager for Sustainable Diets, Hivos Southern Africa; Nsungwe Mulendema is communications officer at CSO-SUN
22 August 2019
A woman picks fresh greens

Supporting smallholders to cultivate a range of different crops can improve their both diets and incomes (Photo: Copyright Stan Makumba)

Zambia’s food system is not delivering enough affordable nutritious food for most of its population. In particular, the nation’s dependence on maize greatly contributes to problems of poverty, malnutrition, vulnerability to drought, pests and diseases. 

Recent changes in weather patterns have brought these problems into sharp focus: during the 2018/19 growing season, poor rainfall led to a decline in maize production, as most small-scale farmers in Zambia rely on rain for irrigation. Zambia’s Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit (DMMU) estimates that 68 of Zambia’s 116 districts are in need of food support. To support people facing hunger, the government needs to raise about US$176 million.

This is a wake-up call for Zambia to think beyond maize, and focus on food and nutrition security, as well as income security.

The high proportion of arable land devoted to maize production in Zambia contributes to poverty – both because maize is a low value cereal and because it restricts the economic multiplier effects of agriculture, limiting potential agro-processing, trading and input supply activities.

The dependence on maize also impacts health: the latest Zambia Demographics Health Survey report (PDF) revealed that 88% of children do not eat diverse food frequently. Largely as a result of their monotonous and deficient diets, 35% of Zambian children under the age of five are affected by stunted growth.

How do we achieve crop diversification?

Crop diversification can increase the affordability and accessibility of diverse and nutritious foods, generate income for farmers and make the agricultural system more resilient to climate change. But how do we achieve it?

While calls for crop diversification are frequently heard from government and civil society organisations, there has been little systematic examination or agreement on how to progress. 

As part of the Sustainable Diets for All (SD4All) project implemented by Hivos and IIED, we have produced a discussion paper that explores the options for agricultural diversification in Zambia from multiple perspectives, including those of farmers (both male and female), farmers’ organisations, policymakers, civil society, market actors and extension workers.

The paper is the result of a collaborative study conducted by Civil Society for Poverty Reduction (CSPR), Indaba Agriculture Policy Research Institute (IAPRI), Consumer Unit Trust Society (CUTS) and Civil Society Scaling Up Nutrition (CSO SUN).

The Beyond Maize study was launched to coincide with a Food Change Lab meeting on 21 August 2019. The Food Change Lab is a multi-stakeholder innovation process that aims to better understand problems in the Zambian food system, build coalitions of change, generate solutions, and test them on the ground.

Our research showed that increased investment for research on a diverse range of crops, including fruit and vegetables, is needed to foster diversification. Investments in agricultural research should reflect a priority focus on supporting sustainable diets. 

Globally, the private sector still allocates about 45% of its research investment to maize, while funding for research on pulse crop productivity is estimated to be far less and comes mostly from the public sector. We need increased research on crops, vegetables and fruit varieties suited to Zambia’s agronomic conditions. 

The existing gap between research institutes and agricultural extension services needs to be closed to ensure that knowledge and improved inputs reach smallholder households.

The benefits for resilience

Kezia Nachihulu, a small-scale farmer of Monze District, has managed to secure her family’s food and nutrition needs by venturing into growing a variety of crops, including millet, cassava and sorghum. She says: “Even when my maize failed, I still managed to have a good harvest from other crops like millet, cassava and sorghum that I planted and this has helped me to have food for my family.”

Crop diversification can improve resilience in a variety of ways: by increasing the ability to supress pest outbreaks and dampen pathogen transmission; buffering crop production from the effects of greater climate variability and extreme weather events; and improving soil fertility through diversifying into leguminous crops.

Another young farmer, Grace Michelo, says: “I planted maize and cassava, the maize was attacked by fall army worms and I could not harvest anything, I only harvested cassava and the yield was very good.”

Stimulating demand for nutritious food

Agricultural diversification also requires that farmers have a ready market to sell varied crops such as millet, sorghum and legumes. In addition, there is need to stimulate demand for healthy and nutritious diets – to ensure that diversification takes place not just on the farm but on the plate as well. 

Mika Simwanda, at Samis Caterings, notices that more of her clients are now opting for traditional and local foods, choosing dishes such as Matebeto (diverse cooked foods) for their meals. She says: “The only challenge I experience is sourcing for these traditional foods, it’s like we are not producing enough. When you find them, for example, millet and sorghum are generally expensive.”   

Producing a wider variety of crops, especially for local and traditional foods, will not only improve availability, but also make healthy food affordable to both consumers and retailers. It will help bolster household food security and will also help improve the nutrition at both household and national level. 

With climate change increasingly affecting weather patterns, Zambia’s maize-centric food system simply does not work for nutrition or resilience.

All stakeholders, from the farm to the plate, must embrace a variety of other crops – especially those that can withstand harsh climatic conditions. Agricultural diversity can be a great step towards better nutrition outcomes and combating hunger and malnutrition in Zambia. 

About the author

William Chilufya is regional advocacy manager for Sustainable Diets, Hivos Southern Africa.

Nsungwe Mulendema is communications officer at CSO-SUN.

Edward Musosa, advocacy officer at Civil Society for Poverty Reduction, also contributed to this blog.

William Chilufya's picture Nsungwe Mulendema's picture