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WE are all aware that the Zambia Cooperative Federation (ZCF), an organization in charge of coordinating the development, representing and establishing business functions of the cooperatives across the country, has regularly received more units of equipment to continue with the set-up of solar-powered mini-milling plants in Zambia.

The equipment received is part of a US$21 million initiative fully funded by the Development Bank of Zambia (DBZ), which was proposed in 2013 by the ZCF and was meant to set up 2,000 mini-milling plants in 25 districts of the country’s ten provinces that have the most potential for maize production by June, 2016. In addition, the programme sought to support the industrialisation of rural areas using the agriculture produce processing activities as part of a ZCF’s five-year strategic plan to establish the industrial clusters that the government wanted to achieve.

During January, 2016, 400 more units of equipment were received to keep the setting up of mini-milling plants that would have had a capacity production of 2 tonnes per day, explained ZCF Director General James Chirwa. The ZCF supported the mini-milling plants by buying 2 million tonnes of maize per year to place on the market and contribute with the reduction of mealie-meal prices and decongest the Food Reserve Agency (FRA), whose reserves demanded high funds from the national treasury, Mr. Chirwa added.

As a concerned Zambian, it is difficult and frustrating to learn that a multipurpose cooperative society in Mkushi recently appealed to government to supply them with a solar hammer mill power bank for storing backup solar power. Here we are in 2018,  two years after the ZCF Director General promised to install two thousand solar mini-milling plants in various rural districts of the country under the presidential milling plant initiative and again there were still cooperatives like Tafimbwa Lubilo Multi-purpose Cooperative Society whose chairman Samuel Kunda, inadvertently made the passionate appeal saying that cooperative societies that had been supplied with solar hammer mills should also be given backup solar power banks to use stored power during adverse climate conditions.

In as much as I agree with sentiments expressed by the Tafimbwa Lubilo Multi-purpose Cooperative Society chairman Samuel Kunda that it was important to store power for use when there was no sunshine, especially during winter and rain seasons when skies were clouded, and that at times it rained consecutively for a number of days, however, I take serious exception to his comments about the symbiotic expectation and the need for government to also supply the cooperative societies with backup power banks for power storage.

I think he needed to be more innovative, self-reliant and more appreciative to the government’s efforts in the provision of solar hammer mills in the first place. But was he insinuating that the cooperative societies were not making enough money from solar hammer mills for use to meet the cost of purchasing backup power banks for power storage? Was it typical of symbiotic dependence on government, perhaps? This got me thinking. Even though, the equipment works directly from sun radiation, without batteries. However, during sunless hours the equipment is capable to work directly through single phase 230V electricity source. Possibly, a bio-fuelled power generator set other than a power bank, whichever could prove to be a more cost-effective and reliable alternative solution would suffice, taking into account that a power bank would equally depend on sunlight in the first place.

There is no doubt that the decision by government to give all districts in Southern Province 315 solar milling plants was yet again confirmation of government’s resolve to ensure that the price of mealie-meal, Zambia’s staple food, remained affordable for all citizens. Not forgetting that the establishment of solar milling plants in Southern Province was part of President Edgar Lungu’s initiative to install 2,000 solar milling plants across the country to help reduce the price of mealie-meal and provide a nearby ready market for small-scale farmers.

Zambia has for a long time been grappling with the upsurge of mealie-meal prices despite recording bumper harvests in previous years. This prompted the PF government to ponder ways to stabilize the mealie-meal prices in conformity with its principle to better people’s lives. After recognising that the cost of production was the major contributing factor to the high prices of mealie-meal, government embarked on the installation of solar milling plants across the country with Northern, North-Western, Eastern and Lusaka provinces being among the first to enjoy the benefits.

Initially, in Northern Province 104 solar milling plants were installed, Eastern 97, Lusaka 12, Southern had six, and Central province had only two solar plants operating at full capacity at that time. It is worth noting however, that the distribution of the solar milling plants was being done according to the capacity of an area to grow maize. Areas without maize production, like some parts of Western Province received conventional mills, which helped farmers process their rice. Of late, 285 milling plants out of 358 allocated in the region have just been installed in Eastern Province.

The fact that these milling plants were placed in maize production areas, the transportation cost was significantly reduced if not eliminated in some cases. And, on the other hand, the substitution of electricity for solar energy provided a major cut on production cost as solar was far much cheaper. Except for cases of acute economic sabotage or extreme greed amongst the cooperators, once the production cost of mealie-meal went down, there was no more justification for unreasonably high prices of the commodity.

Apart from providing cheap mealie-meal on the market, the solar milling plants have gone a long way in reducing poverty among communities where they have been located by providing a livelihood through job creation. The initiative has resonated well with the PF’s manifesto of putting more money in people’s pockets. It is now up to the recipients to ensure prudent management of the solar milling plants for maximum benefits over a longer period of time.

Cooperators need to guard these plants jealously bearing in mind that these are their source of livelihood. The beneficiaries should ensure that these plants are sustained for the stipulated lifespan by subjecting them to periodical upgrades, maintenance and servicing. The people charged with the responsibility of running these plants have no excuse because ZCF has set up provincial training and service centres to ensure sustainability and maintenance of the equipment.

In fact the cooperatives should go a step further by using these solar milling plants to raise capital for other business lines like production of biofuels for bio-fuelled power generators, as a way of spreading their sources of revenue and offsetting fuel costs for their alternative power solutions. Mind you, cassava and sugarcane mostly consumed as foods, have many other applications. Ethanol either from fermented cassava starch or fermented sugarcane molasses are promising sources, with up to a quarter of all petrol-engined power generators already able to run on it, with the potential for every other power generator to be adapted.

Besides, the sugar sub-sector is one of Zambia’s most important economic sub-sectors and is one of the most successful non-traditional export crops. Sugar production is a high value agricultural industry with significant contribution to the manufacturing sector due to high value addition, diverse range of products and markets. The sugar transformation process results in refined sugar, raw sugar, speciality sugar products, molasses and electricity generation. Potential exists in production of ethanol-based fuel blend and other downstream products.

Better still, other cooperatives apart from the recipients of milling plants or any rural-based small to medium scale enterprise in localities nearby or surrounding world-class sugar producing outfits like Zambia Sugar Plc in Mazabuka, Kafue Sugar in Kafue, Kalungwishi Estates in Kasama and Kawambwa Sugar in Kawambwa can seize opportunities in the production of ethanol-based fuel blend from molasses for use in electricity generation for solar milling plants.

Let these plants be used as a stepping stone to empowerment and dignified lives for the recipients. While these milling plants would depend on locally produced maize, it is important that farmers in these areas guard against briefcase maize buyers to ensure sustained supply of the commodity to the plants.

Believe or not, locally produced cassava or sugarcane by the same cooperatives and others would have value added if they could be used for biofuels. Another route to value addition is for producers of sugarcane molasses and cassava starch to take control of biofuel processing and marketing. Whether the commodity is sugarcane, cassava or any other agricultural product, there is no reason why cooperatives cannot benefit from a greater share of the value of the produce grown and picked by their own hands.

It is a well-known fact however, that value-added agriculture is seen as a good way for small-scale farmers in Zambia to develop their businesses. Consider cassava, the shrub cultivated for its starchy, edible root, of which Zambia is one of the African continent’s largest producers. The country is making a mark in the cassava production in the sub-region which currently stands at over one million metric tonnes per year, making it the most important crop grown in Zambia after maize.

Profits in agriculture come from adding value – an area of growing importance to the country. The potential is enormous, from multiple use of cassava to finished ethanol-based fuel blend for use in electricity generation for solar milling plants is alluring.

This is important if cooperatives are to sustain low prices of mealie-meal on the market and boost their businesses. The cooperatives should also ensure that they have enough and safe storage facilities to keep the grain for a longer period to avoid wastage. If not, they should lobby ZCF, the government and other stakeholders to avail or put up the facilities.

The cooperatives would also do well to focus beyond their local market by establishing quality brands which could possibly compete on both national and international markets in the SADC sub-region. For this is the only way to expand their clientele and, subsequently, revenue base. Besides, the solar milling plants are expected to create 3,000 job opportunities among the youths in the country.

Therefore, it is incumbent on young people in the country to report any one vandalising the equipment to the police and other law enforcement officers. With the knowledge that the milling plants were bought at a huge cost hence the imperative need to guard them against vandalism through theft of solar panels. On the other hand, ZCF should closely monitor the cooperatives that have already received the solar milling plants to ensure that there was accountability and prudent business management.

Perhaps most critically, they need to lessen the dependency on government. Over the past two years, ZCF have said that solar milling plants that were being installed across the country, were reducing mealie-meal prices by more than 50 percent and empowering its members. While the critical value of sunlight availability should not be underestimated, the long-term benefit of backup power banks and bio-fuelled power generators should be equally valued and become a priority for 2018 and beyond.

It is my sincere hope as a concerned Zambian – and as one of many passionate people interested in the success of the solar milling plants project – that we never again see the clouds and rains load shed these machines like we are currently witnessing in our country. Imperatively, cooperatives must procure and install backup solar power banks or bio-fuelled power generator sets as alternative power source solutions for their solar milling plants.

It must be noted that solar milling plants are a solution to the effects of the annoying ZESCO power outages because they do not need to be installed along the national grid. The most fascinating thing about these solar milling plants is that they can be set up anywhere, rural or urban, as long as there is sunlight available. They do not rely on ZESCO, but solar energy. Only the clouds will load shed these milling plants. Even though, some seemingly crafty cooperatives have unwittingly setup solar milling plants close to unsafe ZESCO electricity pylons.

This is completely ridiculous. Particularly, that the milling plants were given as a loan that was facilitated through DBZ and that the cooperatives that received them would need to pay back in accordance with the lease agreement – come rain; come sunshine. So, most imperatively, cooperatives must install backup power sources for their solar milling plants for them to be profitable and sustainable.

Regardless of the fact that some cooperatives were faced with major challenges of theft of solar panels, poor business management by cooperatives and milling plants not producing up to the manufacturer’s specified capacity. It is however incumbent upon ZCF to work out ways and means on how the affected cooperatives could be helped out in terms of organizing provincial capacity building seminars and workshops on issues of business management and loan recoveries on behalf of DBZ. Needless to say, DBZ should be aware that a new market is opening for solar power banks, bio-fuelled power generator sets and ethanol-based fuel blend producers, thanks to the requirements of Zambia’s solar milling plants’ backup power sources.

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