Why does Africa import so much food, when it could grow its own? Despite fertile soils, abundant rain and large tracts of land available for planting, the continent is not realising its agricultural potential. Farmers lack access to markets and financing; their soil cultivation techniques are far from modern; and African farm yields are among the lowest in the world.

An ambitious project is under way on the Copperbelt to try and reverse that situation, and it is being driven by Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), one of the region’s largest employers.

KCM has partnered with a consortium consisting of Afgri (Africa’s leading farming services company) and associated company Impact Agri, to create a giant commercial farm on unused mine land; it will generate 7 000 jobs within five years and produce crops for local consumption and for export.

The project, which is well into the planning stage and is scheduled to kick off later this year, is a hard-nosed commercial venture that aims to generate revenue, profit and employment.

This is a hard-nosed commercial venture, not a CSR project

KCM’s role is to provide the land, engage with stakeholders and supply the water necessary for the irrigation of the farmland. The water will be harvested from the 350 million litres of underground water that the mine pumps to the surface every day to keep its shafts dry.

The consortium will provide the upfront capital investment ($3.5 million), the expertise to get the project going, and the training of up to 7 000 small-scale farmers who will grow the farm’s produce.

Afgri is a privately owned South African company with 90 years of experience of farming in Africa. It runs farming operations in 14 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with the primary objective of unlocking the continent’s food-production capacity and ensuring food security. Its special focus is the development of small-scale emerging farmers.

“This is going to be a proper commercial farm, and not a CSR venture,” explains KCM’s General Manager Corporate Affairs, Eugene Chungu, whose primary responsibility is the creation of projects that can create employment in the community. “The crops that will be grown are going to be sold. The consortium is already planning the construction of a processing facility and a cold-storage facility for small-scale farmers. This is going to be big.”

According to Afgri’s business plan, the farm is forecast to have “robust economics” and will enjoy a commercial rate of return. Afgri’s approach is that a project such as this should be financially strong and be able to sustain itself without subsidies from KCM or other investors.

Common cash crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, onions and carrots will provide strong cashflow for the operation, while green beans and other grain crops will help to improve the fertility of the soil.

The phased approach will start with a 150-hectare vegetable and grain project, using both pivot irrigation and drip irrigation to maximise yields and increase efficiency. The 150-hectare site is near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which will allow the project to satisfy both local and international demand.

The project will create 350 jobs within the first two years, by which time the farm should be making revenues of around $3 million annually.

At full capacity – around 2022 – the farm will have expanded to 1 000 hectares, and should be producing around 8 million tonnes of vegetables and grains every year. By then, it will have trained up to 7 000 farmers, and be the second-largest employer in the region after KCM.

According to Chungu, KCM will approach local government officials to see if land can be given to ex-miners to farm, so that more people can be brought in and become part of the project’s ecosystem.

“Our studies have shown that one of the biggest concerns here on the Copperbelt is long-term, sustainable employment – and this programme provides that,” he says. “People will be employed, they will get a salary and they will get training. Their lives will change.”

The training will focus both on the farming side of things (which crops to grow, how and when) as well as the business side (how to maximise water usage, fertility and crop yields).

The learning is based on the so-called Abba model, in terms of which one farmer who has completed the training trains 10 other farmers, and so on. This creates a multiplier effect that dramatically boosts the pool of qualified farmers. The following video (click here), shows how this concept has already been introduced by Afgri at one of its other projects in Western Zambia.

“We all have high hopes for this project, because of the huge economic impact it will have on the community and the broader region,” says Chungu. “If everything falls into place, the first planting should take place towards the end of this year.”

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