MUNIDE ZULU, Lusaka
TRUSTED Mwiinga will definitely go down in the history of Agriculture as Zambiaâ€™s first ever palm plantation manager.
Mr Mwiinga, who is managing Zambeefâ€™s 20,000-hectare Zampalm plantation in Mpika, has managed to successfully transform what was once a barren and remote area of plain into a thriving plantation bringing a new face of development to the area.
With over 25 years of experience in agriculture, Mwiinga considers himself privileged to be the first Zampalm manager and a part of the model approach pioneered by Zambeef.
â€œIâ€™m very happy that my legacy will remain even after I leave Zampalm,â€ said Mr Mwiinga.
Originally from Mazabukaâ€™s Mbozi village of Chief Mwanachingwalaâ€™s district, the 52-year-old began his career in agriculture as a ranch and crops manager at the then African Properties Meyerton Farm – now Ibis Gardens in Chisamba.
His journey with Zampalm, however, was not to begin until 2009 when he joined the company as the plantation manager.
Mr Mwiingaâ€™s passion for agriculture began in his secondary school years when he was accorded the opportunity to work with a Japanese non-governmental organisation (NGO) to combat foot and mouth disease in his home area.
â€œI was employed as a dip tank supervisor in Ngwezi settlement, extension B, where my parents own a family farm. This was the beginning of my agriculture career,â€ recalled Mwiinga.
The realisation of his passion for farming led him to pursue studies in agriculture at Palabana Dairy Training Institute, achieving the best student award in pastures and cropping from 1988 to 1990. He went on to undertake various other programmes over the years and is currently studying for a Bachelors in Business Management with the University of Africa in Zambia.
When Mr Mwiinga and his team took on the role, he was quick to admit that the task before them had not been an easy one looking at the fact that the project was a pioneer project and anything could happen; and indeed it did as seeds planted in the first 1,800 hectares were lost to water stress. It was a steep learning curve, but one that has ultimately benefited the business.
â€œWe started our planting at a very large scale with a nursery of 500,000 palm trees in 2009 though 1,800 hectares were planted but wrongly done. The plants suffered from water stress and damage from rats. Besides that, they were planted at a tender age of one year from the nursery. There was no other option but to start afresh. We did not lose hope but continued to learn from our mistake until we found the formula of how the plantation could be properly established under guidance of a consultant from Costa Rica,â€ he recalls.
Infrastructure in the area also posed a challenge as it is a sparsely populated and isolated area.
â€œWe had no communication network, one had to go to the Boma to make a phone call, which can be very difficult on the family man as that was only possible once a week in the beginning. We also didnâ€™t have five-star accommodation or power,â€ he said of the early days.
Aside from these, there were challenges with labour as most of the employees were untrained and had never had formal work before. They comprised mostly small-scale farmers, fishermen and hunters. Absenteeism and time-keeping posed a problem at first, but with time, employees understood the work requirements and adjusted their lifestyle.
â€œRegardless of the hardships that I and my colleagues endured during the inception period of the plantation, I am glad to see the plantation taking its shape and now looking forward to seeing a drop of palm oil that will be produced here,â€ said Mr Mwiinga.
The success of the project has resulted in improvement in social amenities such as accommodation, water and power on the plantation and surrounding areas. Over the three years of its existence in the area, Zampalm has employed local people in its nursery, plantation and workshop. There are currently 120 permanent employees and 400 seasonal workers with these numbers expected to rise as harvesting and production begun.
And the community residents were able to benefit from skills training in various areas such as weeding, spraying, chipping and construction, all of which were needed for the plantation to operate smoothly. Given that the machinery in question was something that they had never seen before, the training was imperative for a safe working environment.
The Zampalm project was launched in 2009 and currently has some 370,900 palms planted over an area of 2,612 hectares in the main plantation, with another 39,000 seedlings in the main and pre-nursery. Zampalm owns 20,238 hectares of titled land, and the intention is to plant a total of 4,812 hectares in 2017 and similar areas in subsequent years as the business grows.
A two-tonnes-per-hour crushing mill was built this year, with plans for a second two-tonne plant in 2017 and a further 10-tonne plant in the following year, taking crude palm oil production up to 17,000 tonnes a year.
The total investment cost is estimated at US$41.5 million, of which Zambeef has spent US$20 million so far. At current prices, the average production of crude oil of three to 3.5 tonnes per hectare could generate more than US$170 million in revenue over the next decade.
The market for edible oils in Zambia, of which palm oil is one component, is estimated at 120,000 tonnes per year, and this is expected to continue growing as the country develops further.
More than half of Zambiaâ€™s edible oil consumption is imported from the Far East, East Africa and South Africa.
Palm oil is the worldâ€™s most used vegetable oil and has many different uses in addition to cooking oil. Palm oil and its derivatives are found in foods such as margarines and ice cream, used as a thickener, preservative and antioxidant; as well as in personal care products such as shampoo, and cosmetics; industrial products such as lubricants, paints and inks; and as a renewable fuel.
Once fully operational, the plantation will help to substitute 70,000 tonnes of imported cooking oil into Zambia, saving the country around US$70 million (K511 million) in foreign exchange outflows every year.
While Zambia is not a traditional growing region for palm oil, lower yields are expected to be outweighed by the competitive advantage of being closer to consumers in the region given that the cost of importing edible oil from the Far East can account for around a third of its retail price.
In addition to the commercial and economic benefits of the Zampalm plantation, the initiative has provided a number of social and environmental benefits, including the creation of employment and infrastructure in the remote community in the area, which has high poverty levels.
Traditionally, the Bisa people in the sparsely populated area of Senior Chief Kopa were fishermen, hunters or cassava farmers. Since Zampalm was launched, there are now shops springing up, an indication of economic growth, and peopleâ€™s livelihoods have improved.
There are two government health posts that are between 15 and 20km away but Zampalm has provided transport to the clinics, including an ambulance to Kopa Clinic and Mpika District Hospital. This year, another clinic and police post will be built by the company.
Zampalm is also planning an outgrower scheme with the company providing seedlings. It has already given the nearby school 100 seedlings to plant.
MUNIDE ZULU, Lusaka