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by Refiloe Joala in 2018

After six decades of policy experimentation, and efforts to promote economic diversification and reduce the country’s over-reliance on copper mining, Zambia has failed to fully capitalise on the country’s agricultural potential (Neubert et al 2011). Endowed with agricultural land which accounts for 32% of the 75 million hectares of total land area, the landlocked country also boasts abundant water resources and favourable agro-climatic conditions (Zambia Development Agency 2015). While the significance of smallholder agriculture for food production and rural livelihoods has been consistently emphasised in Zambia’s agricultural policies since independence (Eidsvoll 2011, Davies et al 2015), the narrative of resource abundance in policy thinking has equally maintained an agricultural-growth outlook which gives priority to large-scale commercial farming. This policy approach, along with global concerns about dwindling resources in the face of population growth and a growing demand for food and energy, has established renewed investor interest in Zambia’s food and agriculture sectors (Scoones et al 2016, Hall et al 2015).

Large-scale land acquisitions for commercial farming and corporate investments in agricultural value chains have led to rapid changes in land-use patterns, and the rise of ‘flex crops’, particularly soybean. These are crops and commodities with multiple uses (food, feed, fuel, industrial materials, etc.) that can be sold in multiple markets (Borras et al 2016).

The promotion of soybean production across Southern Africa in recent years can be linked to a broader international soya complex, consisting of soya beans, soybean oil (a key fat ingredient in industrial food manufacturing) and soybean meal (used for food and animal feeds). As one of the most heavily-traded commodities in the world, global soybean production has expanded at an average rate of 4.8% since 1990, with 71% of growth attributed to additional harvested hectares in land area while the other 29% has come from higher yields. While production remains geographically concentrated, with four countries - Brazil, USA, Argentina and China - accounting for 90% of the global output, soybean production across Southern Africa is growing rapidly as a result of increased corporate investment in production technology and input supply, primary production, processing and market development (Gasparri et al 2015).