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Case Study: Chinese Agricultural Firm Uses Drones to Fight Pests in Zambia

China is playing an increasingly larger role in African agriculture. Chinese influence through business investment, training, value addition and capacity building is intensifying, and reshaping perceptions.

The Chinese Ministry of Commerce is funding around twenty Agricultural Technology Development Centres across Africa. They are initially government-funded and run mostly by companies as part of a commercial model for training and technology transfer among developing countries.

In Zambia, one such center is run by Sunagri Investments. It promotes the use of smart agriculture through state-of-the-art gadgets like drones.

As a staple food, maize (corn) is dominant on most households’ menus and makes up about 90 percent of the country’s food energy intake. It is for this reason that it’s the most cultivated crop in the Southern African country.

Recently, Zambia has been battling an invasive pest commonly known as Fall Armyworms which have continued to ravage the staple crop every farming season. These notorious caterpillars have spread to more than 40 countries in Africa.

During the 2018/19 farming season, 59,993 hectares of land, supporting over 70,000 households, were affected by the outbreak of the armyworms. This has resulted in 46 districts and 521 agriculture camps sending out distress calls.

To counter the threat, Zambia’s Vice President Inonge Wina recently announced the purchase of 41,666 liters of pesticides worth US$500,000, funded from a US$3 million allocation by the African Development Bank.

The problem is how to best use this pesticide. Sunagri Investment Zambia, a Chinese firm, has invested in agro paraphernalia that promotes the use of smart agriculture through innovative tools like drones in order to combat armyworms. Its use of drone technology bypasses labor-intensive manual spraying in favor of intelligent automatic spraying.

“In 2016, do you know how many farmers cried due to an outbreak of armyworms? I then developed an idea and thought on how I can find the right drones that can help fix the armyworms outbreak in Zambia. In 2017, I managed to import 3 manual agricultural drones from China and subsequently brought in smart drones that can be able to spray insecticides even during the night,” Sunagri Investment Zambia Director Frazer Zhang said in an interview.

Zhang stressed that Sunagri’s XAG (Xaircraft) drone is one of the effective alternatives to help wipe out the pests quickly because manual spray during the day is labor-intensive, costly and a waste of chemicals as the worms only come out to feed on the crops at night.

Sunagri Investment Zambia Director Frazer Zhang showcase the XAG (Xaircraft) Drone during the just ended Agritech Expo in Chisamba district, Central Zambia. Photo by Derrick Silimina.

“First of all, we can fly in the night by using RTK positioning in the like manner we fly during daytime. In terms of efficiency, each drone per day can cover 45 hectares and the task can effectively be done. After 3-4 days after spraying, you will find that the pests are vanquished including the bigger worms that usually hide inside the maize stalk,” Zhang said.

Zhang who has been in Zambia for 8 years urged farmers to invest in drones as the technology is smart, efficient and cost effective depending on the size of the equipment and the area to be sprayed.

However, in view of the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment and the possibility of the pesticides to induce immunity in the pests, Zhang highlighted that the use of pesticides isn’t the most effective way to control the armyworms: “Moving forward, there is need to invest in environmentally friendly gadgets in future for detecting these pests on time.”

Zhang said his company is already working with Chamba Valley Farm, York farm, Seed-co and Zambia Sugar among others in a bid to expand its services in the SADC region.

Zhang reiterated that through his enterprise, he hopes to influence the Zambian youth back to agricultural productivity.

“My dream number one is to make Zambia’s agriculture sector smart and my dream number two is that I hope to influence the Zambian young people back to agriculture. I want to make Zambia and its young generation become a model of smart agriculture in Africa,” he stated.

Amos Mweemba, a farmer in the Southern province, one of the highly affected regions in the country affirmed that the drone helped eradicate the worms on time.

“Just imagine, last time we were spraying at a 3 hectares farm in Choma district, we spent 20 minutes with this drone but with a tractor, it takes 3 hours,” Mweemba noted in an interview at the 2019 Agritech Show.

Agritech Expo spectators admire one of the drones on display during the just ended Agritech Expo in Chisamba district, Central Zambia. Photo by Derrick Silimina.

Zhang reiterated that through his enterprise, he hopes to influence the Zambian youth back to agricultural productivity.

“My dream number one is to make Zambia’s agriculture sector smart and my dream number two is that i hope to influence the Zambian young people back to agriculture. I want to make Zambia and its young generation become a model of smart agriculture in Africa,” he stated.

Amos Mweemba, a farmer in the Southern province, one of the highly affected regions in the country affirmed that the drone helped eradicate the worms on time.

“Just imagine, last time we were spraying at a 3 hectares farm in Choma district, we spent 20 minutes with this drone but with a tractor, it takes 3 hours,” Mweemba noted in an interview at the 2019 Agritech Show.

Derrick Silimina is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Lusaka who writes regularly on Zambian agricultural, sustainability and China-Africa relations. He can be reached by email at derricksilimina@gmail.com.

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