FELIX NKINKE, Lusaka
â€œTHAT is the best news I have heard this year. As cashew farmers in the province, we have struggled over the years to make meaningful investment in our businesses and, worse, to even raise revenue to support our families.
â€œEver since my husband died in 2010, I have had great challenges to sustain the family. But with what you have said that there is funding to help us grow our business, that is great news. However, we do not know anything about these funds. There is lack of information for us farmers here.â€
These were remarks by 69-year-old Joyce Mweebo of Mushakende, a rural settlement between Mongu and Senanga known for its cashew nut production potential in Western Province.
Mrs Mweebo, a widow with six children, developed the cashew farm with her late husband in the early 1980s but the family hasnâ€™t benefited much from its investment because of a number of challenges that have also affected other farmers in the province.
â€œWe need empowerment, especially financial resources, so that we undertake various measures to improve our crops. There is the issue of diseases control. Our trees produce rotten fruits which cannot be sold. We also need to clear our farms to protect trees from wildfires,â€ she said.
But that is not all. Mrs Mweebo also brought out the issue of lack of a ready and viable market for cashew nuts, lack of extension services from agriculture officials and inadequate information regarding access to finance.
Kennedy Kwalombota, another cashew nut farmer, said the sub-sector has been neglected for decades.
â€œI have been in this industry for decades, but lack of investment and initiatives to relieve the dying business, which hundreds of farmers depend on in the province, casts a dark shadow on the future of this industry,â€ he said.
However, these concerns and challenges could be thrown into the books of history as late last year the African Development Bank (AfDB) approved a loan totalling US$45 million to finance a cashew infrastructure development project in Western Province.
The loan will be used to finance the revival of the cashew sub-sector and will involve leveraging the industryâ€™s value chain through irrigation infrastructure for cashew nurseries and clone gardens, plantation rejuvenation and establishment and infrastructure for processing and marketing cashew nuts.
â€œThis is what we want as farmers to improve our crops and raise money to improve our livelihoods. Credit should go to Government for them to think about relieving the industry that is almost non-existent in the province. The project will benefit us greatly,â€ Mr Kwalombota said.
The Zambia cashew hub is estimated to cover an area of about 1.3 million hectares with potential to produce about 130,000 tonnes of raw cashew nuts per year.
According to the AfDB, about 70,000 smallholder farmers, including 35,000 women and 7,000 youths, are expected to benefit from the project, as each of them is expected to cultivate 100 cashew trees on one hectare.
The project will also create about 6,000 full-time jobs within the cashew nut value chain from production, processing to marketing.
The project will be implemented over a five-year period by the Ministry of Livestock in 10 districts across the province. The districts were selected on the basis of their high potential for cashew production, less frost-related problems, high incidence of poverty, food insecurity, malnutrition and vulnerability to environmental degradation and climate change.
Cashew trees were first introduced by Portuguese traders in Barotseland in the 1940s but growth of the industry has been slow due to low production among other factors.
In 1985, the Zambia Cashew Company was established and it managed to create commercial estates and a processing factory in Mongu, a development that improved the industry until 1996, when it drastically declined as a result of withdrawal of financial support to the company.
â€œThe project has come at the right time when cashew farmers need resources and interventions to revamp the industry. We need Government and other stakeholders to quickly get on the ground so that we start seeing things moving in the right direction,â€ said Senanga district agriculture co-ordinater Mukelabai Mwangala.
The project aims to contribute to rural poverty reduction in the province and improve household incomes through sustainable cashew production, processing and marketing.
Job creation is also at the centre of the project as thousands of men, women and youths are expected to benefit from employment opportunities to be created once it is up and running.
Support to farmers will be immensed under this project. Irrigation systems for nurseries and gardens will be promoted while training and technical support will also be offered to various interest groups.
Gender issues have also been considered and taken on board in all planned project activities as about 50 percent of beneficiaries will be women.
â€œItâ€™s good that the majority of farmers to benefit from this programme will be us women. We need to be empowered for us to play a meaningful role in our communities. Times have changed nowadays. We shouldnâ€™t look up to men to do everything for us. We also need to take up front rows in development,â€ said Mrs Mweebo.
The project has the potential to significantly improve small-holder farmers and household incomes in the targeted districts of Mongu, Kalabo, Limulunga, Lukulu, Senanga, Nalolo, Sikongo, Shangombo, Sioma and Mitete.
Western Province is poised to become the hub of cashew nut production once again with the coming of this project in place.
FELIX NKINKE, Lusaka