Zambia’s Maize Paradox: Land-poor Farmers in a Land-rich Country

When I saw the photo of the little girl in Mutanga, Zambia, I cried. It was the kind of image that tugs at Western bleeding-heartstrings to loosen their purse-strings. It had that emotional effect on me, which was incongruous because I’d taken the photo myself. And the girl was was one of seven children on a relatively successful small farm. (Excerpted from Eating Tomorrow, Chapter 4)

When I saw the photo of the little girl in Mutanga, Zambia, I cried. There she sat in the dirt, knees tucked up to her chin, head in her hands, barefoot, maybe nine years old. She looked down into the red dust in front of her, expressionless. She wore a green skirt and a second-hand hooded sweatshirt. She looked poor, but worse than that, she looked abandoned.

It was the kind of photo that passes for “poverty porn,” the sort of image that unscrupulous aid agencies use to tug at Western bleeding-heartstrings to loosen their purse-strings. It had that emotional effect on me, which was incongruous because, in fact, I’d taken the photo myself. And the girl was no orphan in a refugee camp. She was one of seven children on a relatively successful small farm in Zambia.

Her name was Machila. Her father, Wilfred Monga, was showing us his farm, and he had a lot to show. He was a successful crop and livestock farmer, small-scale to be sure, but not by Zambian standards.[1] He had 12 acres of land, which he’d planted in a mixture of crops — maize, sweet potato, peanuts, vegetables — with some left for pasture for his 100 cattle. In the dry season, he even had access to village lands for grazing. Goats and chickens roamed his compound, which had several small buildings, some with concrete floors and walls, around a dirt courtyard. Paddocks for his cattle lay just outside the perimeter, their soils rich in manure to spread on his crops.

Wilfred said the family mainly ate the crops and used the animals for milk and cash. He told us they didn’t slaughter the cattle for beef. “For us, a cow is milk and money.” When the family needs cash, he sells a cow, or maybe a goat. His daughter presumably got a regular diet of milk and perhaps eggs, in addition to the usual nshima. She probably also got “village chicken” (a local breed, highly valued over supermarket poultry) and maybe some fresh goat meat too. Those protein-rich products may have gone to market instead of to the family, but she was no poster child for Zambian poverty.

Still, the stark photo made me wonder what that poverty looked like if this was, for Zambia, a relatively healthy child. A mind-boggling 78% of small-scale farmers are estimated to be in extreme poverty, below the $1.25/day poverty line. Rural poverty overall is 78%, one of the highest rates in Africa, and in the world. Some 40% of children are considered stunted, short for their age. That is more than one million children. Stunting is considered one of the most telling — and unfortunately predictive — of hunger indicators, since the developmental effects last a lifetime.[2]

The high rates of rural poverty are particularly appalling in a country that is considered a green revolution success story, one of the African countries that has increased maize production dramatically in recent years. Seed and fertilizer subsidies encourage small-scale farmers to adopt high-yield farming methods. The Zambian Food Reserve Agency (FRA) buys surplus maize at a premium price. Since 2002, national maize production has more than tripled, making Zambia a regional exporter in many years.

That hasn’t done much for most Zambian farmers, particularly the 70% of them who have access to fewer than five acres of land. Yields are poor, even with the subsidized seeds and fertilizers. Most don’t produce enough of a surplus to sell, so they don’t benefit from the government-subsidized prices. That leaves many small-scale farmers with too much land planted in maize, too little in complementary nutritious crops like pigeon peas and vegetables, and harvests that run out in December, three-to-four months before their next crops come in.

Wilfred himself seemed happy and healthy, right there in the depths of the hungry season in late February. Standing close to six foot tall and with a seemingly permanent smile of healthy teeth, Wilfred was thin, but he seemed fit rather than malnourished. No doubt the family suffered from the micronutrient deficiencies that plague rural Africa, as the lack of cropping diversity undermines diet diversity.

Machila led five cows out to pasture, stick in hand, smiling with confidence. I was confident in her present, but I wasn’t so sure about her future. Her father has enough land, but would she? Wilfred wasn’t so sure. He told us his ancestors originally had 45 acres of land, but generation after generation had divided the land among family members. His 12 acres could become fewer for each of his children, too little land to sustain their own families at anything above a subsistence level. As a girl, would Machila get her own land? Many don’t, as the majority of farmers on customary land have no formal title and traditional landholding practices often exclude women from inheriting land.

Zambia is one of the least densely populated countries in the region. Unlike Malawi, good lands are available in some parts of the country, but not in densely populated areas like Southern Province. Wilfred’s farm is on customary land, in the chiefdom of Hamusonde in Southern Province. Chief Hamusonde himself, a successful rancher, told us that he was running out of land in the chiefdom for Wilfred’s children, for the next generation.

Researchers have referred to the paradox as one of land-poor farmers in a land-rich country.[3] The obvious question was why a government with 78% rural poverty couldn’t find a way to make some of the good, unused land available to land-poor food producers. That would be called land reform, or redistribution, or resettlement, and it has been the precondition for economic development in countries from South Korea and Taiwan to China and Vietnam.[4]

Land reform is nowhere on the agenda in Zambia at this point. Instead the government is reserving vast tracts of land — 250,000 acres at a time — for Farm Blocks in the hopes of attracting foreign investors. Foreign exchange from exports of copper, long the mainstay of the country’s economy, have fallen with world copper prices, and export agriculture is expected to fill the gap. Few investors have come. The German Amatheon Agri was slowly expanding its maize, soybean, wheat, and groundnut operation near Mumbwa, in Central Province, with the goal of producing on 100,000 acres. But much Farm Block land sits idle, and many question the development impacts of even successful projects like Amatheon.[5]

According to a 2016 report, the project had generated about 250 permanent farmworker jobs and somewhat more seasonal work. But there were complaints about the pay, hours, and working conditions for both seasonal and permanent workers. Some local farmers were working as “out-growers,” with credit and inputs from the company to grow crops on contract. Depending on the fairness of the contract, out-grower farmers can see improvements in their livelihoods and food security, particularly if they are still growing food crops partly for home consumption. One survey claimed the company had trained 3,500 farmers with the goal of contracting up to 8,500 by 2018.[6]

I hear those numbers, and all I can think of is Wilfred and his children. Researchers have estimated that the optimal land-holding for small-scale farmers in Zambia would be 10 acres, not too much land for a family to farm but enough to produce a significant surplus, sell on the market, and earn cash to invest in the family and the farm.[7] That’s what rural development looks like. Each of those farm blocks, with its one big investor and a few hundred workers and outgrowers, could instead put 25,000 land-poor farmers on 10 acres of good farmland. If the government would also invest in irrigation, like it is doing to woo foreign investors, those farmers would be downright prosperous, getting a coveted second harvest during the dry season. That would make the hungry season history for those farmers, and you can bet Zambia’s rural poverty rates would plummet.

Wilfred led me out into his fields in search of one of his goats, which were out foraging in unplanted fields. We walked past a freshly turned quarter-acre where a woman with a hoe was planting sweet potatoes. Wilfred proudly showed me his maize, a local variety called Gankata, which means “resistant” in the local language. He said it does well, not just in terms of yield but because it is the kind of maize his family needs, a flint variety that produces good grain and resists pests and diseases in storage. That’s not the high-yield maize variety promoted and subsidized by the government. Wilfred saves Gankata seeds from one’s year’s harvest to plant the next. He gets input subsidies, but he doesn’t need a subsidy for his Gankata, and his animal manure makes the state-subsidized fertilizer an afterthought, an optional soil amendment.

Wilfred found the goat he was looking for, a healthy gray breed, fully grown. He threw it to his shoulders, the legs draped around his neck like a scarf. We needed to get back before a sudden drizzle turned into the usual midday downpour. We beat the rains, and while we waited in the shelter of our car Wilfred slaughtered the goat. He’d made another sale, to one of the city-dwellers who knows the value of fresh goat meat straight from the farm.

Machila weaved her way back up the path toward the homestead, cows at her command. Maybe that goat would pay for her school expenses. That would be a pretty picture. Prettier still would be one in which her land rights are secure and she has the resources to overcome Zambia’s paradoxical combination of rich land, rising food production, and persistent hunger and poverty.


[1] Official government categories treat farmers with up to 125 acres as “smallholders,” but most consider farms under two hectares — five acres — to be small farms.

[2] Hilal Elver, “Preliminary Observations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Hilal Elver, on Her Mission to the Zambia 3–12 May 2017” (Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, May 12, 2017),

[3] Thomas S. Jayne et al., “Is the Scramble for Land in Africa Foreclosing a Smallholder Agricultural Expansion Strategy?,” Journal of International Affairs 67, no. 2 (Spring 2014): 35–XV.

[4] Ha-Joon Chang, “Rethinking Public Policy in Agriculture: Lessons from Distant and Recent History,” Policy Assistance Series (Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization, 2009),

[5] Refiloe Joala et al., Changing Agro-Food Systems: The Impact of Big Agro-Investors on Food Rights (Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, 2016),

[6] Joala et al.

[7] Munguzwe Hichaambwa and T.S. Jayne, “Poverty Reduction Potential of Increasing Smallholder Access to Land,” Working Paper (Lusaka, Zambia: Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute (IAPRI), March 2014).

Author of Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, & the Battle for the Future of Food. Advisor with Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

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