CHARLES CHISALA, Lusaka
DAVID Subakanya spends so much time among his oil palm trees that if he were to be left blindfolded in the middle of the vast plantation, he would grope his way out with water-drinking ease.
Local people say, in jest, that when the man is in the plantation the palm trees actually wave and nod at him because “they all know him”.
Mr Subakanya is the estate manager at the Zampalm oil palm tree plantation in Senior Chief Kopa’s area in Kanchibiya district, Muchinga Province.
Government acquired the company from Zambeef Products Plc in April this year at a cash consideration of US$16 million.
The estate has the potential to produce up to 100 tonnes of crude palm oil in a month from its primary processing plant.
Once at full capacity, it could feed refineries such as Global Industries in Ndola with a steady flow of raw material for processing into ready-for-use edible oil all year round.
The multimillion dollar venture could also help stem the importation of edible oils into Zambia and earn the country a lot of foreign exchange through exports.
Currently, there are 3,300 hectares of high-yielding hybrid varieties of palm trees imported from Malaysia and Indonesia.
Mr Subakanya says Zampalm started planting the trees in 2011 on 168 hectares while harvesting began in 2016 because the first crop only matured after five years.
This year ’s harvest has already started, and is moving systematically from the 2011 planting to the 2013 crop.
The bunches of oil palm fruits weighing between one and five kilogrammes have a dark brown colour when immature and turn orange to yellow when ripe.
They are handpicked by hordes of workers who pile them in heaps on the edges of palm tree rows, where they are collected by tractors with trailers and transported to the mill to be processed into crude.
Mill manager Simon Chileshe says the plant is currently producing 1.6 tonnes of crude a day, but the output is expected to increase as the harvesting peaks.
“This mill has the capacity to produce up to 16 tonnes of crude palm oil in eight hours. As the harvesting continues, and with the expansion works planned for the next three years we expect a steady increase towards full capacity,” Mr Chileshe said at the plant.
Production is further expected to be boosted by the out-grower scheme in which the initial 500 local farmers, including workers, are being targeted.
Out-grower scheme manager Nelson Basaalide, an oil palm tree specialist from Uganda, explains that the combined output of the core venture and the out-grower scheme has the capacity to satisfy Zambia’s demand for edible oil.
“When the expansion works are completed and the out-grower scheme is fully implemented Zampalm will have the capacity to flood Zambia with edible oil and export the surplus,” Mr Basaalide said.
He said in Uganda, where he ran a successful out-grower scheme, there was scientific evidence that palms produce the highest quantity of oil per hectare compared to other natural sources such as soya, groundnuts, cotton seed and sunflower.
“If you have the best crop of soya bean it can only give you up to 1.6 tonnes of crude for a hectare. But a similarly good oil palm harvest will produce between three and five tonnes of crude from just one hectare,” Mr Basaalide said.
A lot is happening at Zampalm.
‘Swarms’ of workers can be seen busy working at the greenhouse, the main nursery, at the plantation, the crude oil mill and expansion site from 06:30 hours to 15:00 hours each working day.
Mr Subakanya says the trees are arranged in plantings.
“A planting is known as the year when the trees were planted. We have also divided them according to their varieties.
“So far, we have got eight plantings from 2011 to 2018,” he said.
Mr Subakanya said the site of the plantation and nursery was carefully selected to avoid deforestation and relocation of local people and their farms.
The estate sits on uninhabited grassland on the edge of the Bangweulu Wetlands.
“We started producing crude palm oil in 2016, but production is expected to increase due to expansion. Besides the 3,300 hectares of palm trees we currently have we will be planting 900 more hectares over the next three years,” Mr Subakanya said.
“We are happy with the way things are going so far. With support from the owners, we are confident things will go according to our plans.”
The oil palm trees are arranged according to the year and variety.
Zampalm has 20,000 hectares of titled land with plenty of room for expansion.
The company will plant extra 300 hectares of new palm trees each year between 2019 and 2021, which will bring the total land cover to 4,200 hectares.
Continuous improvement is at the core of planning.
“Th r o u g h c o n t i n u o u s monitoring and research, we have seen tremendous improvement. For example, instead of the trees maturing at the normal age of five years, we have reduced the time for the first harvest to only three years,” Mr Subakanya said.
The trees are not planted randomly, but according to prevailing agronomical conditions of the soil.
Mr Subakanya said, “These varieties are tolerant to the localised conditions of the soil.”
The trees are all improved hybrid varieties, hence producing a higher quantity of oil than the traditional varieties.
And the nursery is ready for the massive expansion to begin next month.
Nursery superintendent Kunda Mwelwa has a ‘combat-ready army’ of 70 workers at the green house and main nursery.
“We are fully ready. There are 90,000 seedlings in the nursery,” Mr Mwelwa declared.
“We will start planting on 600 hectares of newly cleared land next month.”
Patrick Luo, who is headman Sankalimba, is a happy man.
“This Zampalm has reduced poverty in this area, and I am happy that they are expanding because that means they will employ more people,” the 69-year-old headman Sankalimba said.
Zampalm has cultivated cordial relations with the local people over time.
Mr Subakanya has formed village committees through which management consults with the community on matters of mutual interest.
The great Zampalm story resonates with Section 7 of the Seventh National Development Plan.
Government envisages to achieve economic diversification and job creation through agriculture, mining and tourism.
Strategy focus 7.12.4., Strategy 4, targets increased employment opportunities in rural areas by promoting rural infrastructure development, agro value chain development and labour-intensive industries operating in rural areas such as Zampalm.
CHARLES CHISALA, Lusaka