Palm trees ‘rescue’ villagers from poverty

MS MUMA on duty at the oil palm tree greenhouse nursery. PICTURE: CHARLES CHISALA

WHEN 23-year-old Rose Nkandu qualified to Grade 10, it was like the end of the road for her.
Her parents did not have the financial means to send her to school.
Later, the family ‘migrated’ from Samfya in Luapula Province to Senior Chief Kopa’s area in Kanchibiya district, Muchinga Province, in search of a better living.
Their circumstances got only worse in the absence of a reliable source of a livelihood.
However, in 2015 Rose got a job as a general worker at Zampalm oil palm tree plantation about 20 minutes’ drive from Senior Chief Kopa’s palace on the edge of the Bangweulu Wetlands.
Life took a sharp new turn.
Rose is one of the close to 700 villagers in the Kopa chiefdom whose lives have changed after being employed by the oil palm estate owned by the Zambian government through the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC).
IDC acquired 90 percent shares in the operation from Zambeef Products Plc at a cash consideration of US$16 million in April this year.
In the eight years it has been in operation, Zampalm has created employment for hundreds of the local people literally lifting them and their families out of extreme poverty, as they are ready to testify.
From her salary Rose is building a house in Samfya, which she intends to rent out to earn her an extra income.
“I have already bought 30 roofing sheets. Every month I am sending some money towards the construction of my house. Once it is finished I will put it on rent,” the prospective landlady said.
Rose is also sponsoring the education of two of her brothers.
One has just written Grade 9 examinations while the other will be progressing to Grade 9 in 2019.
“I’ve been paying for all their school requirements. I am grateful to Zampalm for giving me this job because I am able to meet most of my family’s needs,” Rose said.
She boasts with a smile, “We have tea with bread for breakfast like those in town, yet we are in the village. I buy whatever clothes I want. Things have improved a lot since I started working.”
Rose is engaged and gladly awaits the ‘I do, I do’ vows with the man of her heart, who lives in Lusaka. She kept his name close to her chest, though.
Her older workmate, Joyce Muma, a widow, could not contain her emotions in a separate interview.
“It’s like being delivered out of slavery. Zampalm has delivered me and my five children out of poverty by employing me,” she said in a subdued, shaky voice.
After the death of her husband earlier, the burden of taking care of their five children was too heavy for her.
When Zampalm threw her a lifeline in 2009, she seized it with both hands, and cherishes the job like a firstborn baby.
“I don’t know how I would have taken care of these three girls and two boys. We used to suffer a lot before I got this job. It would take months to just have a K50,” a soft-spoken Mrs Muma said.
And she is not ashamed of counting her blessings.
“I have built a decent, five-room house with corrugated iron sheets where I am living with my children. I’ve also built a house with an iron sheet roof for my parents. They are now also living in a decent house,” Mrs Muma confided.
During the interview in her well-furnished living room, her two-year-old granddaughter Christabel snuggles on her lap.
For 42-year-old Derrick Mumbi, ‘salvation’ arrived in February, 2009 when he started working for Zampalm.
The change the employment has brought in his life is phenomenal.
He used to eke out a living as a struggling peasant.
“I used to suffer a lot as a peasant farmer in the past. We were living in a small house with a thatch roof, but not anymore. Now I am managing to take all my seven children to school from the salary Zampalm pays me,” Mr Mumbi said.
His is the typical ‘rags to riches’ story.
“I am grateful to those who brought this Zampalm here. I and my family are now living in a good house with a corrugated iron sheet roof. I have bought a lot of property, including an expensive sofa set and a plasma TV. Each of my seven children sleeps on a mattress,” he shared proudly.
For Jonathan Phiri, being employed on August 3, 2010 was God’s answer to his prayers.
Life was rough for the father of one as he did not have a stable source of income.
But in the eight years he has been working for Zampalm, he has also managed to build a decent house for his family and another for his parents.
“I have built my parents a house. I’ve also built my own house,” Mr Phiri said. “Before I was employed as an oil instructor, I did not have a source of income. There has been a big difference since I started work. I even have a sofa set and a plasma TV in my house.”
And living in her own house made with burnt bricks and a corrugated iron sheet roof is like a dream come true for Jennifer Chanda.
Before Zampalm employed her as nursery supervisor in 2008, she used to sell scones to make ends meet for her family.
“Life was tough. You can’t raise enough money from selling scones in a remote rural area like this. But I am happy now that I am working and getting a salary every month,” she said.
“I have built a house for my family and another for my mother, who is a widow. I have two houses,” said the mother of six, whose husband also works for Zampalm.
“We are no longer afraid of people from Lusaka because we are wearing the same clothes they wear,” she bragged and laughed.
A house of burnt bricks with a roof of corrugated iron sheets is a status symbol, a sign of affluence, in Kopa, a typical rural chiefdom.
Headman Sankalimba, whose village borders the plantation says over 90 percent of able-bodied local people are working at the plantation.
That is the socio-economic transformation oil palm trees have brought to the surrounding community.
Zampalm estate manager David Subakanya says the company expects the number of employees to increase to 1,000 because of the expansion project to begin next month as part of the implementation of the Seventh National Development Plan.

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