Malting barley cultivation in Zambia is a child prodigy, having grown from nothing at all to local self-sufficiency in four short farming seasons. This is testament to a skilled set of growers and committed support from Zambian Breweries and the wider SABMiller business.
But what does it take for a child prodigy to grow into a stable, successful adult?
When I asked some of the farmers recently what attracted them to growing barley, most gave me both an expected answer and a less expected one: “It mitigates wheat price risk”; and “it’s a difficult crop to grow – we like the challenge!”
Those answers tell us a fair amount about what will ensure this fledgling malting barley sector in Zambia becomes truly sustainable.
Local sourcing is a core part of SABMiller’s strategy. The business reasons are threefold: reducing total cost of raw materials; securing long-term supply of our core crops; and strengthening our economic and social contribution in markets where we operate. Substituting imports saves hefty freight costs; bringing new origins into our supply base de-risks long-term supply; and revenue flows to local farmers and farm workers, input suppliers and government. But of course local sourcing only makes sense when the crop is viable, and can be grown productively and efficiently enough to generate a return for farmer and brewer alike.
In recent years, Zambia has become the only African country self-sufficient in wheat. It was this which sparked an idea for the Zambian Breweries team. Surely the farmers who grew wheat in the Zambian winter could just as successfully grow malting barley. Commercial-scale trials with four pioneering farmers in 2009 proved it. Yields in the first year averaged 6.33 tons per hectare. Bearing in mind the average yield in France that year was just under 7 tonnes, and in Canada closer to 3, this was impressive stuff.
This is far from the small-scale agriculture that is typically associated with Sub-Saharan Africa, but it is the model that made sense to establish this crop in Zambia, for two reasons. Firstly: despite abundant water sources in growing areas, irrigation infrastructure is essential in a Zambian winter characterised by clear blue skies and no rainfall. Secondly: agronomic expertise, equipment and inputs are key to success with this technical crop. Of course, fertile soils also play their part.
Adding a crop to Zambia’s agricultural portfolio has been an exciting step for Zambian Breweries. Alongside sorghum, maize and other less traditional brewing crops sourced locally from small-scale farmers, we see great opportunity for agricultural development that can benefit our business, farms of all sizes, as well as the rural population who rely on agriculture as their primary source of income.