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A partnership between brewery and farmers has helped to develop a thriving malting barley sector in Zambia in record time

For many years our Zambian business, Zambian Breweries plc, sourced supplies of malting barley from neighbouring Zimbabwe. But by 2009, the problems inherent in Zimbabwean farming had seen this vital supply line cut off, forcing our breweries to turn to European barley, which kept the beer flowing but saw raw material costs double.

The warm, dry Zambian winter is ideal for growing grains, and wheat was established two decades ago as an irrigated winter crop. Barley and wheat have similar requirements for successful cultivation; could a solution to our barley sourcing needs be found closer to home? We turned to Zambia’s major commercial wheat growers, many of whom had formerly farmed in Zimbabwe, to see if they were interested in developing a complementary revenue stream that would also help mitigate the risk of wheat price fluctuations.

Anele Malumo, our Managing Director in Zambia, says: “Often, when we think about local sourcing of crops in Africa, we think about small-scale farmers. Other crops that we source in Zambia do come from smallholders, but barley in Zambia is a bit different, because barley and wheat are both winter crops grown under irrigation. This means that they need investment into the irrigation infrastructure, so that’s tough for small-scale farmers to do.” 

We brought in barley varieties from Zimbabwe and recruited four pioneering growers to plant around 200 hectares as a trial. Anele describes how the farmers tackled the programme with enthusiasm: “They all said, ‘what we really like about this is the technical challenge of growing malting barley’. These farmers were really interested and got excited about doing something new. There was a learning curve that they were willing to go up quite quickly.”

The results were spectacular, encouraging us to boost the programme over the next two years to 4,500 hectares, achieving 24,000 tonnes of prime quality malting barley. 

It was quite remarkable. We got some amazing yields, and the quality of the barley produced was excellent. By 2011 we were producing enough barley to make Zambia completely self-sufficient.
Ian Mackintosh |former Technical Director at Zambian Breweries plc

To have achieved this landmark from a standing start in just three growing seasons is testament to the skills of the farmers and their willingness to take a risk on trying out a new crop. More typically, introducing a crop into a new growing environment takes decades, not years.

With the barley sector established, we have taken the logical next step of investing in a Zambian malting plant. Construction began on 21 October 2014 in Lusaka. Speaking on the day, Anele said: “Today marks yet another key milestone in Zambian Breweries’ growth and development agenda as we unveil plans and break-ground for our latest US$32.6 million dollar investment in a malting plant. The first of its kind in the 50-year history of our young nation, Zambian Breweries’ new malting plant will make Zambia self-reliant in malted barley.”

With an initial production capacity of 18,000 tonnes per annum, the plant will have sufficient capacity to meet local demand with excess exported to regional markets. When complete, the plant will save Zambia approximately US$10 million dollars in import costs a year.

As a natural evolution of the barley farming programme, the malting plant will go a long way in sustaining the circa 12,000 rural jobs that are in part dependent on the barley farming programme. Local sourcing is a core part of our strategy and by adding depth to Zambia’s agricultural sector we continue to play our part in boosting the rural economy and the livelihoods of those who rely on agriculture as their primary source of income.