Zambia seeks green revolution but unstable climate threatens income of millions of small farmers

Profile of a climate-vulnerable country pre-Cop28: ‘The rain comes late and goes early’

A 13-year-old girl is demonstrating how to produce rapidly growing vegetables using hydroponics – deploying water instead of soil – at a successful production facility based at her school. It suggests a green revolution is taking root in Zambia.

This, after all, is deep in Southern Province, a rural area where the vast majority of the population are subsistence farmers struggling to feed their extended families and wrestling with an increasingly erratic rainy season.

Deployment of such modern farming techniques in the African country probably won’t be the game-changer solution in switching to more sustainable agriculture that generates a good income, but it is a tangible sign of the willingness of communities to change against all odds. And as the world gathers at Cop28 in Dubai in the coming weeks, Zambia provides a timely reminder of the precarious position of so many African countries; battling economic woes while being at the forefront of the climate crisis.

Edith Mulengo outlines the planting process, mixing ingredients as if making bread, then impressing her finger on the contents of small pots to make way for a seed, before the tray of Chinese cabbage is transferred to a darkroom for germination. Her school mate at Gwembe primary school, Edith Cantola, shows how the emerging plant is immersed in a pool of water on a polystyrene tray having made sure the pH of the growing medium is correct.


Their hydroponic garden under a polytunnel has been in production since 2021 with support from Irish Aid; World Food Programme, Irish development organisation Self Help Africa (SHA) and others. It produces large quantities of vegetables used to provide a meal for more than 800 pupils. It has diversified their diets away from maize while generating income through community sales.

The local community organised building materials and provided labour. Parents help cook the daily meal. It ticks the boxes of water conservation, reduced land use and climate-resilient farming, besides boosting attendance and concentration levels among pupils, according to head teacher Oscar Kabika.

District planning officer Ruth Phira says 12 local schools now have hydroponic gardens and while they would like to extend the programme “we don’t have running water in a lot of schools”.

Locals couldn’t believe a crop could be grown so quickly. Some said it was magic, adds SHA project manager Decision Mweeba. Having started out with local crop varieties, they have carefully secured community support for others, especially climate-resilient vegetables.

Asked what impacts climate change is having on their area, he replies: “Too much. You have drought or floods. There is no in-between – it’s never stable. This is an area of climate shocks and it’s getting worse.”

Observing rampant deforestation nearby, he is dismayed by the extent of charcoal burning; “we are going backwards”. Increasing temperatures are directly related to human activities, Mweemba says.

Market limitation

Almost on every street where people assemble across this boundless country is a gathering of traders and stallholders, selling every conceivable item – household essentials, cheap mobile phones, used car springs, blessings, charcoal and much more ...

A vibrant enterprise culture prevails even if circumstances are extremely challenging with little or no electricity (or refrigeration) while business is conducted from a base that can be as small as a phone box.

A common feature, whether in the capital Lusaka or rural villages, are the fresh fruit and vegetable stands with mini pyramids of tomatoes, onions and mangoes; often with a broader range of produce piled high nearby. For too many people this is the limit of their marketplace. With livestock production, similar limitations are evident. Despite big outputs of cattle and goats, it is mostly within a hyperlocal context.

“Agriculture is the main potential lift to all of the economy. If we can get that right in terms of supports, in terms of extra income for farmers, that’s the main platform for change and growth,” explains SHA chief executive Feargal O’Connell.

The path to a much stronger economy built on the back of agri-food industry is emerging. New roads and rail links criss-cross the country courtesy of Chinese money and construction companies (though they still must be paid for). Wealth from copper mining, an emerging middle class in Lusaka, and the Zambian equivalent of a nascent Irish co-op are all increasingly evident, though some contrasts are striking.

A tractor, for instance, is a rare sight over many thousands of hectares of farmland. Low water levels on Kariba dam have prompted more and more power cuts everywhere. “Load shedding” – ie cuts in supply – are frequent due to inability to cope with demand, yet there is little solar power in a country with immense renewable energy potential from that source.

Three factors threaten uneven progress; a population surging to 20 million plus, the accelerating climate menace and indebtedness.

Phiona Mayuwa, a progressive farmer embracing sustainability near Choongo village in Monze, puts the climate factor in context: “The rain comes late and goes early.”

The rainy season is their lifeblood, without it “we are a crippled people”, she adds. Crop lines have diversified to include cassava, sweet potatoes, sorghum and groundnuts that are better suited to shorter growing seasons, adds Ivetty Mubambe. Because she practised traditional farming, she says she was wrong-footed by a compressed rainy season that worsened harvests.

Partially for cultural reasons women are at the vanguard of change as they generally run the small farms. They are fully up to speed on climate risk, and often become seed growers, ever mindful of essential quality control.

These women are part of the Preserve-Kafue project, with notable support from Irish aid organisations. Community structures are robust; actions are undertaken in the collective interest across an increasingly complex scaling-up of agriculture encompassing reforestation, wetland management, accessing finance and seed multiplication. Having a large-scale egg incubator has facilitated expansion of poultry – with talk of “going beyond feeding ourselves”.

“It’s business. It’s about finding markets ... We want to build our own factory,” says community development officer Munenga Gupira.

Farmers in Mumbwa, west of Lusaka, are one step further down that supply chain route as Community Markets for Conservation (Comaco) provides an outlet for their produce. Underpinned by the co-operative principle, its 2,100 farmers supply legume crops other than maize, which uses chemical fertilisers. They grow trees that are especially good for crop cover and fixing nitrogen in the soil. One of Comaco’s facilities there produces dried tomatoes, processes groundnuts for peanut butter and cowpeas for use in a fortified porridge.

It is one of 30 companies developed under the five-year Enterprise Zambia project, a €26m EU effort to support business investments improving the sustainability of agri-food systems. It has generated thousands of jobs.

Comaco first sought permission from local chiefs and “headmen”. Then it held community meetings before identifying suitable farmers, a Comaco manager says. The mechanics of securing agreements meant “she” – the farmer – must agree to conditions such as to refrain from using or trading in charcoal or wild game. “He” – the husband – must agree to not poach in a nearby national park.

SHA manages the initiative, with a second iteration in the offing. O’Connell says it integrates smallholder farmers into supply chains in a climate-smart way. “We see the private sector as a huge part of the solution to helping communities and countries like Zambia adapt in the face of a changing climate.”

Irish ambassador to Zambia Bronagh Carr says there is huge potential in a country, that has lots of agricultural and mineral resources but the challenge for a new government is how to realise economic dividends with 60 per cent of citizens being poor, and poverty is rising.

“The government has a challenge on its hands, it’s working well to try and address that ... it is very much around aspects of technology and what really will work to make a difference, and what can be scaled up, because it cannot be business as usual.”

There is growing awareness of those challenges with a new ministry of climate and the green economy. “They’re taking a lot of action around these issues.”

They recognise, she adds, the need to work harder at awareness raising among the population, and fostering understanding of “how the benefits of a business can be felt at all strata of society”.

On Cop28 convening in Dubai shortly, O’Connell’s says his hopes and expectations are probably different. “My hope would be for very clear commitments from northern hemisphere countries around climate financing.”

“Debt restructuring is a really key part of helping countries who are most affected by climate change, finding the fiscal space to allow them to look at mitigation actions,” he stresses. Inflation post Covid and the Ukraine war has caused ripple effects across the continent, including soaring food prices.

He hopes Cop28 will make substantial commitments on debt restructuring and “loss and damage” to help vulnerable countries. Recent progress on the latter will lift the mood.

Debt is the number one issue right now for so many African countries, O’Connell says. “They are completely boxed in in terms of their macroeconomic choices and their budgetary choices, and they have very little room for manoeuvre at a time when they need to be delivering key infrastructure and social programmes ... to protect their most vulnerable communities.”

It may have restructured $6.3 billion (€5.9 billion) of debt to creditors (including China) recently with IMF assistance, but Zambia – more than most – remains constricted by terrible indebtedness.