LUSAKA. Zambian entrepreneur and social activist Sylvia Banda has dedicated her career to promoting traditional food. Her quest has increased food security in rural areas and opened up new income possibilities for small-scale farmers.
It started with a restaurant in the late 1980s that grew into a chain of canteens for corporate clients. However, Banda’s goals stretched beyond financial gains – she wanted to train local farmers to expand their businesses. In 2005, with her husband Hector, she founded Sylva Food Solutions, a cluster of businesses promoting and developing traditional Zambian food.
“Non-indigenous crops often need more water and fertilisers to give a good yield, while traditional crops are more drought resistant,” Banda explains. But knowing that is only one key to a successful expansion of their businesses.
“Some of our local food is also very nutritious and has medicinal values, but it must be prepared properly. Today, we’re working with World Food Programme and the Zambian ministry of education to introduce nutrient-rich moringa* porridge into school feeding programmes,” says Banda.
Training on marketing and food processing
So far, more than 20,000 growers have received training on various aspects of modern farming, such as marketing, cooking, food processing and modern drying techniques.
“When we started, the training was focused on production and processing, which meant we were dealing with people who didn’t have business skills. But as this is not a charity; we introduced an element of entrepreneurship into the programme,” Banda tells us.
Once the farmers have received training, they are organised into farmers’ clubs where they help each other and share resources such as the solar dryers used to preserve fruit and vegetables. Many of these farmers, once-trained are later on contracted to deliver produce to one of the bulking centres that Sylva Food Solutions has set up around the country. In this way Banda offers the farmers a place to deliver and get paid for their products; a link directly to the market.
“We want to work with dedicated people and women have a tendency to hang on to the knowledge and keep using it. Therefore, most of our farmers are women,” Banda says.
Advancing the farming techniques requires funding and equipment
But no matter how much training the farmers receive, poverty is still rife in Zambia. One big challenge is getting proper title deeds in a country where most small-scale farmers operate on communal land, governed by traditional laws. This is starting to change, but without title deeds it is difficult to get decent loans, and farmers are stuck in the poverty trap. With or without title deeds, Banda is set to advance the farming techniques beyond the traditional hoe.
“My idea is to connect the farmers’ clubs with financial institutions that can assist each community to buy a tractor. It can be shared among the farmers, they can pay it off in a few years and they can rent it out to neighbouring villages. I call it smart farming that will put the hoe where it belongs: in a museum.”
Meet the farmers
Florence Tembo provides for a family of nine children and two adults. Her husband is unemployed. “Before the training I mainly grew maize and pumpkins, today I’ve expanded my crops to include ground nuts, cow peas, sweet potatoes and okra. Mrs Banda has taught us how to process and dry the food so it doesn’t lose nutritional value. Food security at my house is much better now. I’ve also expanded my fields and I employ a couple of women to help me on the farm. Most of the crops I sell on the regular market nearby – it’s quick money. I use the money I earn to pay for school fees and buy school material for the children.”
Astridah Mwansa provides for a family of six children and two adults. Her husband is employed.
“I grow spring onions, sweet potatoes, cassava and leafy vegetables. I also harvest leaves from weeds. The new drying techniques we’ve learnt have improved our food security. We used to dry our green vegetables in the open air and they got very sandy. The children didn’t like to eat that food. Now we’ve learnt how to cook and prepare the food in a different way and the children like it. The main challenge is a shortage of solar dryers. We only have one to share in our group of 20 farmers. More solar dryers could help us produce even more food.”
Martha Ngoma, a widow, is the sole provider for herself and five children.
“Previously I only grew maize for my family; after the training I’m growing vegetables as well. Most of the vegetables I dry and sell at the market, we also consume some of them ourselves. I liked all the different parts of the training; the cooking, the marketing perspective and the way we learnt how to dry leafy vegetables in a new way. My income has increased since I had the training and it helps me to pay for the children’s school fees, even if the money is still not enough for all our needs. If the rains are good this year, we’ll be okay.”
Facts: Sylva Food Solutions
- Training programme started in 2005, supported by the World Bank, Care Zambia International, World Vision, Africare and Catholic Relief Services, among others.
Approximately 20,700 farmers, 90 per cent being women, have received training.
- Farmers deliver their produce to 20 bulking centres throughout the country. The goods are transported to Lusaka for further processing.
The market is found locally and internationally. A total of 185 people are employed at the bulking centres and the food factory.
The programme has spread to Mozambique and Tanzania.
*Moringa is a tree and all parts of the tree have a very high nutritional value. The leaves are used for porridge and many other kinds of food.