The biggest current problem in Zambia? A food surplus. Rains were verygood this year and there's now a bumper crop of corn hitting the markets. Prices to farmers will drop drastically, leaving smallholder farmers who grow 80% of the crop without much cash. So the government is stepping in and buying the crop. Too much food a problem? Yet food insecurity in some pockets and malnourished children? Africa kind of puts all your assumptions to a test.
Driving down the road west of the capital of Lusaka, you see small fields of cotton that are the equivalent of a suburban backyard in the US. Yet these farmers are growing for the world market. Despite the high quality of the crop, though, it's hard to get a fair price. Blame it on “market inefficiencies.” Smallholder farmers don't really know what their crop is worth, because there's no open exchange. So they just sell it to the guy who arrives on a truck and take what they can get.
On the side of the road, you can see huge corn sacks filled with black rock, with wire over the top securing the load. Why were so many people selling rocks I wondered? My driver told me they weren’t rocks. They were charcoal. The people in the country burn trees to make charcoal, which is then trucked into the city. “People cook food with charcoal in Lusaka?” I asked. As it turns out, many do, with obvious ramifications for deforestation.
Zambia is not cheap. In fact, I’ve found food prices just a bit cheaper than in Washington. A lunch of chicken kebob and rice cost around $8. Bottled water runs around $1.25. A nice vegetarian Indian meal with chickpeas, vegetables and paneer cost about $20. The equivalent food in DC would run $5 or $10 more. The only thing I’ve found that’s cheap is local cell phone service. You buy time in increments of 4000 kwacha, or 80 cents, and it seems to last quite a long time.
With 5,000 kwacha to the dollar, you start calculating into the millions for a hotel bill. I think it would be easier if the nation just lopped all the zeros off its currency and started again. But I’m probably not the first one to think of that.
- Samuel Fromartz