Food security and markets in Zambia
by Miles Murray and Evans Mwengwe, CARE International August 2005

Levels of chronic malnutrition in Zambia are now among the worst in the world. But it is drought that galvanises attention and informs responses. Drought response will often be necessary, as will the recovery activities that follow. Addressing people’s vulnerability to drought, however, requires a more structural change. One such structural change would be the development of markets for drought-tolerant food crops. In Southern Zambia, this could mean the creation of a market for sorghum. By being able to meet people’s needs both for cash and for food, sorghum, like maize, would become a viable choice for farmers. This would provide a powerful stimulus to crop diversification, and with it drought resistance. CARE International in Zambia has begun investigating how feasible the creation of a market for sorghum is. The initial signs are encouraging, but the work is just beginning.

Food insecurity in Southern Zambia

For most rural households in Zambia, the cultivation of maize provides their primary source of income, as well as food. As a crop, maize is particularly vulnerable to drought, and increasingly erratic and lower rainfall has had a severe impact on maize production in Southern Zambia. At the same time, economic structural adjustment has resulted in a withdrawal of state support for producers. This has made adjusting to climatic change more difficult, while introducing the additional burden of having to adapt to new market conditions as state marketing boards and cooperatives have been replaced with private traders and the uncertainties of free markets.

Economic changes have also had a direct impact on households’ key asset: livestock. Cattle disease has become more widespread, and the cattle population has decreased dramatically, hitting households hard. Finally, HIV and AIDS, though less prevalent in rural areas than it is in urban Zambia, still constitutes a crisis for rural families. Although each family is affected differently, the costs of the disease – in care and medicines, for example – is inescapable.

As a consequence of these environmental and economic shocks, Southern Zambia, historically the source of much of the country’s agricultural produce, is becoming characterised by chronic food insecurity. This chronic crisis – the unrelenting erosion, from every quarter, of people’s livelihoods – has contributed to a situation where levels of chronic malnutrition in Zambia are now among the worst in the world.

CARE in Southern Zambia

CARE International has been working in Kazungula District in Zambia’s Southern Province since the early 1990s. Its involvement began with short-term responses to drought. After repeated relief projects, the Livingstone Food Security Program (LFSP) was started in the mid-1990s to address people’s persistent vulnerability to drought. The programme focused on the promotion of crop diversification through a seed loan scheme, and increasing the availability of water for domestic consumption and livestock. The programme also included micro-finance, marketing and livestock disease control, which grew to include dairy marketing.

In 2002, just as the LFSP was coming to an end, Southern Zambia was once again affected by a severe drought, and a major drought response programme was put in place. Two and a half million people across the country received relief food, often through food for work. CARE’s drought response programme in Kazungula distributed over 4,000 tonnes of government and World Food Programme (WFP) relief food, as well as agricultural inputs for the following seasons. CARE continues to work in Kazungula, piloting a cash-based social safety net for the most destitute families, and distributing food to families who are food insecure due to HIV and AIDS and other chronic illnesses.

Lessons from the droughts in Kazungula

There are many lessons to be learnt from the droughts that have affected Kazungula and the responses, both short and long term. The most fundamental may be that responses, however effective, are not addressing the real crisis: chronic poverty. There are many causes of this chronic poverty, from the household level to the global level, but addressing vulnerability to drought and loss of livestock may offer the greatest potential for change.

In Southern Zambia, rural households’ continued vulnerability to drought is most immediately linked to the cultivation of maize. But maize cultivation is also a very rational choice. Maize represents both a cash crop and a food crop. Maize can feed a household, but it can also be sold to provide the income to meet other basic needs, such as health and education. This versatility gives households the power to cope with the insecurities that surround them. Unfortunately, it also leaves them vulnerable to the less frequent, but more severe, shock of drought. If households were to give greater importance to drought-tolerant food crops, they would be insulated from the major shock of drought, but they would have less income to meet planned and unexpected non-food needs. If they diversified into alternative economic activities, such as the cultivation of high-value cash crops, they would again be replacing one source of vulnerability with another: market, as opposed to climatic, vulnerability could become a key issue for households.

As an agency, CARE faces a similar dilemma. If it supports continued maize cultivation, either directly through seeds and tools or indirectly through cash transfers, it leaves families vulnerable to drought. But if it supports drought-tolerant food crops, it leaves families less able to meet their non-food needs, and vulnerable to more immediate ‘everyday disasters’. We know that the assumption in our log-frames – ‘good rains next year’ – is as likely to be proved false as it is to come true. But until we address the fundamental problem that drought-tolerant food crops are not a viable choice for farmers, we, like the farmers, have little choice. We continue our seed distributions and food for work, while, like the farmers, watching the sky and praying for rain. General food distribution will help meet immediate needs. Cash or food for work and seed multiplication will help in rebuilding assets, and therefore increase resilience to drought. But the underlying vulnerability to drought will remain.

After the drought of 2001–2002 the rains returned and the agricultural inputs provided as part of the drought recovery contributed to good harvests. Zambia exported maize to the region. But for all the talk of recovery the vulnerabilities remained. This year, once again, the rains have been poor in Southern Zambia. The recovery is evaporating and there is talk of another drought response. Food aid pipelines are being rebuilt, and recovery programmes will no doubt follow. This is not a call for an end to maize. The high yields and ease of processing and storage mean that maize will always have a role to play. Nor is it a call for an end to food relief or drought recovery programmes. They too have their place. It is a call for a real choice – a viable alternative to maize. It is a call for drought mitigation to be given the prominence that response and recovery so often get.

Towards a new approach?

For Southern Zambia, sorghum seems to represent a viable alternative to maize. Sorghum has similar nutritional value to maize, but it requires fewer inputs – both fertilizer and, crucially, water. There is a history of growing sorghum in Southern Province, and there is a market for sorghum in neighbouring Botswana. Like maize, sorghum provides fodder for cattle. Sorghum does have a lower yield than maize, is more prone to attack by birds and more laborious to process. But it is, crucially, more drought-tolerant.

The demand created by a viable market for sorghum would mean that growing a drought-tolerant food crop would become a real choice for rural households. With a viable market building on, and reinforcing, existing crop diversification activities sorghum would, like maize, be able to feed a household and provide income to meet other basic needs. Unlike maize, it would mean that households would no longer have to choose between meeting their immediate needs and reducing their long-term vulnerability.

There are a number of examples from the region that show that this may be viable.

  • The Botswana government has successfully promoted the increased commercialisation of sorghum to such an extent that it now represents 50% of all traded meal.
  • WFP has used sorghum in its school feeding programmes in Tanzania, thereby helping to stimulate the demand for sorghum.
  • In Zambia the local NGO Program Against Malnutrition has been advocating fpr the greater commercialisation of cassava, and the government’s food reserve agency has purchased cassava for its Strategic Reserves.

This is not to say that it will be simple. Markets for drought-tolerant food crops would have to be actively developed – just as the Zambian maize market was developed to supply the demands of a newly urbanised labour force. Just as farmers will not grow significant quantities of sorghum until there is a market, so millers and traders will not invest in sorghum until the market is better developed. Issues of grain quality and consistency of supply will have to be addressed. This would be a complex and long-term undertaking. It would have to involve all major stakeholders: the government, the private sector, the wider public, academia, international agencies, donors and NGOs. But it offers a long-term and resilient solution to people’s vulnerability to drought. Once established, markets for drought-tolerant food crops would not be limited to a project area, or dependent on donor funding.

During its drought response programme in 2002–2003, CARE tested some initial ideas for developing a market for sorghum. It became clear that urban households (in Livingstone) enjoy sorghum and would be willing to buy it – if the price was right and it was readily available in meal form; and that while rural households have slowly started growing sorghum for food, they would quickly switch to growing more – if there was a market for it. CARE is therefore pursuing this idea further. It will have to develop more than anecdotal or intuitive arguments. With studies and projects it may be possible to convince people of the potential benefits that the development of a market for sorghum could bring. But it will only be with the involvement of all major stakeholders that the scale needed to kick-start a sorghum market will be achieved. But if successful, this could represent a true structural adjustment – a change in the local economy that reduced both poverty and vulnerability.

Miles Murray is Emergency Program Officer, CARE International UK. His email address is: Evans Mwengweis Food Security project Manager, CARE International in Zambia. His email address is:

References an further reading

Kato Lambrechts and Gweneth Barry, Why Is Southern Africa Hungry? The Roots of Southern Africa’s Food Crisis, Christian Aid, March 2003,

Ailsa Holloway, Disaster Mitigation in Southern Africa: Hot Rhetoric – Cold Reality, Disaster Mitigation for Sustainable Livelihoods Programme (DiMP), University of Cape Town,

Simon Levine and Claire Chastre, Missing the Point: An Analysis of Food Security Interventions in the Great Lakes, Network Paper 47, July 2004,

D. D. Rohrbach, Improving the Commercial Viability of Sorghum and Pearl Millet in Africa,

M. Chisi, Sorghum and Millet Breeding in Southern Africa in Practice,

V. Subramanian and V. C. Metta, Sorghum Grain for Poultry Feed, 2000,

Charting a Course to Food Security for Southern Province, Mid-term evaluation of the CARE Livingstone Food Security Project, Associates in Rural Development Inc., for USAID Zambia, June 2000,