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By Shapi Shacinda

LUSAKA (Reuters) – Zambia will award farm land to foreign investors in 2009 to improve agricultural production and curb food shortages, the country’s finance minister said on Thursday.

Situmbeko Musokotwane said the mineral-rich country would grant foreign and local investors land in farm blocs for them to grow more white maize for export to countries in southern Africa.

Speaking at a meeting convened to familiarize with farmers’ operations, Musokotwane said agriculture provided the best alternative to diversifying the economy away from copper mining, the country’s economic lifeblood.

“We will open up more land to investors in the coming year and more details will be issued at a later stage. There is plenty of room for everybody, we think we should do something in agriculture,” he said.

Zambia created two major farm blocs last year, each over 100,000 hectares in size.

The blocs would be split up for foreign and local farmers to grow cash crops, but the roll-out of the project has been hindered by delays in putting up infrastructure on the sites.

Agriculture industry officials said last week the country would import up to 100,000 tonnes of maize to plug a deficit expected in the first quarter of 2009, after the government lifted a ban on imports of maize.

“In the past few years, Zambia achieved considerable success in food security, but now we want to go beyond food security to exporting,” Musokotwane said.

MAIZE IMPORTS

The newly appointed finance minister’s announcement came as a local farmers’ group warned that Zambia would have to import more maize in 2009 if both commercial and peasant farmers did not receive adequate subsidies to grow enough of the staple white maize.

Zambia National Farmers Union (Znfu) president Jervis Zimba said local farmers were facing difficulties in raising maize output due to soaring costs of fertilizer and seed.

“We are seeing a situation where we will have more imports and the solution is not to subsidize (maize) imports, but production,” he said.

Zimba said the government, which is providing subsidized seed and fertilizers to 200,000 small scale farmers this season up from 125,000 farmers in the 2007/08 season, should extend the programme to commercial farmers as well.

“The major farmers’ concerns are (linked to) the current (global) economic instability. Prices of agricultural inputs are going up while our banks are not lending out to farmers and the season has just started,” Zimba said.

“The best (way) is to ensure complete subsidies for commercial and small scale farmers. We need to look at how the government can help farmers because currently the fields are empty, very few farmers are going to grow maize,” Zimba said.

Zambia’s 2007/08 maize output was reduced to 1.2 million tonnes from 1.3 million the previous season due to floods in some areas.

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