Sunbird takes cassava production head-on
by YANDE SYAMPEYO, Kawambwa
HISTORICALLY, the cassava crop in Zambia, which is only second to maize as a staple food, has been produced for household consumption. As a result, its value addition has mostly been limited to very basic processing.
The potential for cassava, whose use includes production of bio-fuels and starch products for industrial and alcoholic beverages, far exceeds the current production levels.
However, in the recent years, there has been a huge inflow of investment into the cassava industry and this has expanded the scope of crop production and processing.
For example, in the 2018/2019 farming season, the country produced about 1.9 million metric tonnes of cassava flour while the area cultivated was about 345,000 hectares.
And luckily for the people of Luapula Province and Kawambwa in particular, a cassava out-grower project, which has been deemed as a game changer, has been delivered to their doorstep.
The cassava project, situated in the Luena farm block in Chief Munkanta’s area, will be used as feedstock in the US$190 million ethanol project by Sunbird Bioenergy Limited.
The flagship agricultural project, which is aimed at uplifting thousands of households out of poverty, is expected to engage 20,000 small-scale farmers who will be required to produce 700,000 metric tonnes of cassava every year.
Sunbird will supply farmers on the scheme with planting materials and other inputs to support the expansion of cassava production.
In addition to empowering farmers with inputs, Sunbird will train farmers and extension staff in the Ministry of Agriculture on cassava production and processing.
The company will start building the bio-refinery plant this year which is expected to reduce the country’s fuel imports by 10 percent.
The plant is expected to produce 120 million litres of fuel grade bio ethanol and it is further anticipated to generate 36 megawatts of electricity.
Majory Mwape, a small-scale farmer of Chitondo, is elated with the implementation of the cassava out-grower scheme.
Ms Mwale, who has been cultivating cassava for household use for about 10 years, sees the scheme as an opportunity to earn income.
A single mother of four, Ms Mwape is eager to register for the project because she has enough land to grow the crop.
“I inherited a big parcel of land from my father and so I’m quite confident I will qualify as a beneficiary.
“I’m happy because I know I will be able to send all my children to school once I’m enrolled in this programme,” Ms Mwale said.
Peter Mwaba, another small-scale farmer of Chief Munkanta’s area, is optimistic the project will change the face of Kawambwa and Luapula Province in general.
Mr Mwale, a father of eight, desires to see more development in Kawambwa such as establishment of banks and shopping malls.
He is optimistic that the out-grower scheme will reduce poverty and subsequently contribute to the gross domestic product.
“I want to thank Government and Sunbird for this project which has brought so much hope to us because we are guaranteed that enough money will be in circulation once this programme is in full swing,” Mr Mwale said.
And speaking at the launch of the scheme recently, President Edgar Lungu said he is confident that the project will be a game changer for the cassava industry in Luapula Province.
The President is optimistic the scheme will not only stimulate cassava production, but will also change the prospect of the commodity’s value addition and processing.
He said Government has prioritised cassava as a key strategic industry for development.
“I’m excited to note that the country is now appreciating the unlimited potential of cassava beyond household consumption.
“Some countries have fully capitalised on the crop and this has contributed greatly to boosting their economies. Government will support cassava production and value addition,” he said.
The head of State said production and processing of cassava in the country is yet to be at the level it should be mainly because the industry is faced with numerous challenges.
He cites lack of a reliable market, short supply of improved seedlings and huge transportation costs incurred to ferry the commodity to its final destination as some of the pitfalls.
President Lungu is of the view that the challenges have affected the viability of the cassava industry and further discouraged many small-scale farmers from growing the crop.
“The huge costs incurred by cassava farmers in Luapula Province to transport their goods to the market will now be a thing of the past as Sunbird has now brought the market to your doorsteps.
“I urge all farmers in the province to leverage this opportunity and to honour the terms of the contracts you will sign with Sunbird. Opportunities of this type should be guarded jealously,” the President said.
The head of State wants farmers to prove to Sunbird that they are more than capable to produce above the quota given to them.
He further urged the farmers who will engaged in the project to avoid side selling of cassava to individuals and companies outside the Sunbird agreement.
The head of State said, “No matter how attractive the price may be from other buyers, remember you cannot abrogate your responsibilities to this contract with Sunbird.
“In this regard, ensure you repay the company for the inputs which you will be supplied with by meeting your contract obligation through the supply of cassava to the company,” he said.
President Lungu also advised Sunbird and other companies implementing out-grower schemes to give farmers fair contracts.
Government has observed in the past that some out-grower scheme managers have taken advantage of small-scale farmers, who have been exploited because of their ignorance.
“This practice will not be allowed because Government will ensure that farmers are protected from exploitation,” the President said.
The Patriotic Front (PF) administration is keen to see a win-win situation, where Sunbird or any other out-grower scheme manager benefits while the welfare of farmers is also enhanced.
He says Government envisages the agriculture sector to take the lead in stimulating economic development, and that for this to happen, more projects such as the cassava out-grower scheme by Sunbird need to be replicated.
The President is also pleased that the farm block concept is now gaining momentum as evidenced in the Luena farm block.
He assures the private sector of a sustained conducive investment climate.
And for Sunbird, the project, once fully operational, will create over 1,000 direct and 10,000 indirect jobs.
The company’s chief executive officer, Richard Benette, says the company has the best cassava species which mature early and produces 40 tonnes per hectare.
He says the company will provide seedlings and technical support through its extension officers, who will help increase cassava production in the area by 50 percent.
Mr Benette says 5,000 small-scale farmers will be recruited on the project this year and the remaining 15,000 will be put on the programme by 2021.
He points out that at its peak, the project will see US$20 million circulate in Kawambwa among farmers every year.
Mr Benette advises farmers in the region to take ownership of the project and make it thrive.
“We want to create an opportunity for farmers and we are going to deliver that promise,” Mr Benette said.
The company is grateful to President Lungu for believing in the project when everybody else had doubts.
And Luapula Province Permanent Secretary Sam Phiri urges all citizens to participate in the cassava out-grower project for sustained development.
Dr Phiri said the cost of growing cassava is much lower than that of other cash crops such as maize because it (cassava) is drought-resistant and produces more (crop) per hectare.
He said over the years, improved species of cassava have been developed as the crop is now able to mature within a year from three years.
Dr Phiri said a basic requirement for people interested to participate in the out-grower scheme is to own land.
“We want to see resources retained within the country and the only way we can achieve this is by supporting the out-grower scheme by allowing citizens in Luapula and other places within the country to participate in this programme,” Dr Phiri said.
He said the cassava seedlings plantation by Sunbird will over the years cover 10,000 hectares.