Features

Palms turn ‘exile’ into businessman

WORKERS at the Zampalm oil palm tree estate main nursery in Senior Chief Kopa’s area, Kanchibiya district. PICTURE: CHARLES CHISALA

CHARLES CHISALA, Lusaka
WHEN life became too tough for 41-year-old Dominic Chota at Sankalimba village in Senior Chief Kopa’s area in Kanchibiya district, Muchinga Province, he decided to migrate south in search of a livelihood.
Mr Chota raised money for transport and, with literally nothing, travelled all the way to Chanyanya area in Kafue district in 1994.
For three years, he eked a living out of fishing and growing maize.
But life was still a daily struggle as he could not make enough money to meet his needs and send some to his mother.
Finally, like the biblical prodigal son, in 1997 Mr Chota decided to pack his bags and return to his home village to take care of his mother.
After saving some money, he embarked on the long journey back to Mpika district, from where he connected to Kopa about 100km west.
“When I arrived here I had only K500 with me. With it, I started a little business,” he recalls.
He started buying bath soap from Mpika, bartering it with mealie meal and cassava, which he sold for cash.
Mr Chota is now running a mixed merchandise shop, and has built a decent house with a corrugated iron sheet roof, a symbol of affluence in the area.
He is a beneficiary of the bourgeoning local economy created by the Zampalm Oil Palm Tree Plantation and Mill.
Zampalm, which was set up by Zambeef Products Plc in 2008, has 3,300 hectares of palm trees.
The Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) took over the estate in April this year at a cash consideration of US$16 million.
The estate has embarked on an ambitious expansion programme under which it will plant 900 more hectares of oil palm trees between 2019 and 2021.
With a workforce of close to 700, about K900,000 pours into the area in form of salaries and allowances for members of staff every month.
With disposable income to spend, the workers are keeping Mr Chota’s shop fully stocked.
The shop stands a few metres from his house on the main road.
Both structures are painted in white and blue in a well-tended yard.
There is good business. Mr Chota’s shop enjoys a constant flow of customers until its closure late in the evening.
He is now planning to buy a motor vehicle for transporting people between Mpika and Kopa at a fee.
Mr Chota has managed to persuade eight other people he had left in Kafue to return home as well.
“I’ve managed to bring back eight others who were just suffering in Kafue surviving on subsistence fishing. They are now working at Zampalm,” he said.
“What has happened here in Kopa is unbelievable. I am encouraging the Government to take more such investments to rural areas. They have the capacity to reduce poverty as we have seen here.”
Indeed, before Zampalm’s establishment, life was a daily struggle for the local people, who depended on low-level fishing, cikanda and caterpillars (finkubala).
Fish catches were so negligible that they made little impact on poverty while the caterpillars come only once in a year.
The remoteness of the area and the poor feeder road connecting it to Mpika make farming unprofitable.
As a result, cyclical poverty had persisted in families.
But not anymore, thanks to the arrival of the ‘palm gold’.
“I am grateful to those who brought this Zampalm thing here. It is a blessing indeed. Today you cannot give your children roasted cassava as breakfast. They will refuse, saying that they want bread and tea,” Mr Chota said amid laughter.
“You cannot go to church with tropicals [slippers] today; people will laugh at you. We are no longer intimidated by people from Lusaka when it comes to dressing.”
Mr Chota said Zampalm does not discriminate.
“Even those who have never been to school have been employed and have built nice houses,” he said.
Mr Chota is planning to mobilise members of the community to go and express their gratitude to Senior Chief Kopa for his personal contribution to the success of Zampalm despite the initial resistance from the local people.
He confides: “At first we didn’t understand this thing. We thought the chief had sold our chiefdom, but thank God it is here today. Now I am even a proud owner of a motorcycle, which used to be a mere dream.”
Mr Chota is happily married to Bridget Bwalya, and the couple has five children.
“My wife has been my pillar. She has helped me to grow my business despite some challenges we have faced along the way,” he said.
He is excited about the out-grower scheme Zampalm has introduced in which 500 villagers, including its workers, will soon become oil palm tree plantation owners.
Each beneficiary will be given a piece of land by the chief while Zampalm will supply seedlings and buy their harvests.
The company will also help with land preparation and provide free extension services.
“I already have a piece of land where I will start growing oil palm trees with the help of Zampalm,” Mr Chota said.
Out-grower scheme manager Nelson Basaalide, an edible oil production expert from Uganda, says the farmers will be able to earn up to K14,000 from one hectare in a single harvest once the fruit is fully ripe in three to four years’ time.
However, Mr Chota is worried about the sorry state of the 100km gravel road from Mpika and is appealing to authorities to work on it urgently.
The road becomes impassable during the rainy season.
A good access road is needed.
Zampalm has not only created employment for the local people and rescued them from rural poverty, but also brought entrepreneurship opportunities as Mr Chota testifies.
According to the Seventh National Development Plan, Section 7.12.2 Strategy 2, Government intends to facilitate micro, small and medium enterprise development.
Such investments as Zampalm are contributing to the realisation of that objective.

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