CHARLES CHISALA, Lusaka
THE baby expertly strapped to her back with a chitenge wrapper seems to be enjoying the ‘rough ride’ as Loveness Bwalya darts around the inside of the small milling plant.
Even the white dust filling the room doesn’t seem to bother the baby.
Mrs Bwalya is juggling between wrapping the brim of an empty 50kg grain bag around the mouth of the outlet duct of the machinery for the finished mealie meal to drop in and dexterously sealing the filled one.
At the other end Violet Mbilima is busy sorting maize grain before feeding it into the inlet section.
Against the wall, near the entrance, is a stack of about 50 bags of maize grain.
A stern-faced Hammard Chilonge is at the controls, monitoring and controlling speed and voltage.
The three seem to be ‘buried’ in what they are doing, oblivious to the outside world.
They are in the solar-powered milling plant.
Mrs Bwalya and Mrs Mbilima are members of Katita Multipurpose Cooperative Society at Mpanta village in Samfya district, Luapula Province, while Mr Chilonge is the operator of the solar hammer mill.
The cooperative runs the mill.
President Edgar Lungu came up with the initiative to import 2,000 solar hammermills and install them in needy areas countrywide as a strategy to stabilise and reduce the prices of mealie meal.
Government is implementation the poverty-busting project jointly with the Zambia Cooperative Federation (ZCF).
The idea was to make affordable mealie meal available to vulnerable communities.
Designed to use solar technology, the equipment is easy to operate.
In many places where these mills are working, they have been a blessing to the local communities, who are able to have their grain milled into edible flour at low fees.
The Mpanta community is happy that the mill has improved its status.
Close by is the Rural Electrification Authority’s (REA) solar mini grid, which is providing electricity to about 600 households.
It is also operated by the cooperative society.
The solar hammermill has brought relief and pride to the community.
“We are very happy. In the past we used to suffer. We used to take our maize and cassava to Katansha or Chimembe. It was very difficult if you did not have a bicycle,” Mrs Bwalya said, her face covered in white powder.
Customers pay K15 for 20 kilogrammes of maize to be ground into roller or breakfast meal.
“We are also now eating good mealie meal like those who live in town,” her colleague, Mrs Mbilima, said and laughed as she sorted out grain for a customer.
For Mr Chitonge, the solar-powered mill plant has created employment for him and improved his family’s standard of living.
“I have been the operator from the first day the mill started working in January this year. In the past only workers and business people used to eat good mealie meal, but we are also eating the same now,” he said.
Mr Chilonge declined to disclose his salary.
“I am able to look after my wife and our two children. But I am also saving part of my salary so that I can attend skills training in Samfya or Mansa.” he said.
Mr Chilonge described the solar hammermill, project as a good initiative.
But there are a few challenges that need urgent attention.
The rollers are finished. As a result, the mill which is able to produce 15 bags of mealie meal a day each weighing 50 kilogrammes, is able to produce only five.
“The machine needs new rollers so that it can operate at full capacity. There is also need to increase the power storage capacity so that it can work for a longer period. We are closing at 15:00 hours because the solar power runs out,” Mr Chilonge said.
As a result of low voltage, the plant is currently able to mill only one bucketful of breakfast meal.
Before his current job as mill operator, Mr Chitonge worked as a security guard and later as a construction labourer in Chililabombwe after completing his secondary education in Mansa.
“As a security guard I used to work 12 hours a day, but here I only work eight hours. I am able to do other things,” he said.
The Presidential Milling Initiative was rolled out in September 2015 with the ZCF unveiling the first three of 2,000 solar-powered hammermills.
The hammermills, bought and delivered at a cost of US$100,000, were distributed to North-Western, Northern and Lusaka provinces.
Government is working with ZCF to set up the solar-powered hammermills countrywide, in all the 10 provinces, to help reduce the price of mealie meal, which are expected to create over 3,000 jobs for Zambians.
ZCF director-general James Chirwa said after the launch of the roll-out that Government, with China’s support, would buy about 2,000 units at a cost of US$200 million.
In his foreword to the Seventh National Development Plan (7NDP), President Lungu says Zambia aspires to become a developed middle-income nation.
He says the key outcomes of the plan include economic diversification and job creation; poverty and vulnerability reduction; reduced developmental inequalities and enhanced human development “for a diversified and inclusive economy”.
In the section ‘Economic Diversification and Job Creation’, Government aspires to deliver a prosperous middle-income economy that offers decent employment opportunities for all Zambians of different skills and background.
The 7NDP espouses the realisation of additional jobs and benefits from Zambia’s vast endowment of natural and human resources through a diversified economy in which no one is left behind.
“The vast raw materials in agriculture and mining offer opportunities for value addition through forward linkages to manufacturing and agro-processing, and increased production and exportation of non-traditional exports to domestic and international markets,” the plan says.
The Mpanta solar hammermill is contributing to the country’s journey towards the attainment of these objectives in its own small way.
CHARLES CHISALA, Lusaka