“There are a lot more women than men in agriculture in Zambia!”

Chileshe Chansa, Lusaka, Zambia

Chileshe Emmeldah Chansa (41) runs a mixed farm in Lusaka province in Zambia, Southern Africa. Without a real agricultural background, she started up her farm, Mabala farm, all on her own after seeing a friend do it. Today, she runs a farm and all the administration that comes with it on top of a family.

“My farm is situated in Lusaka province, not far from the capital city of Lusaka”, Chileshe explains. “Mabala Farm is located along the bank of the Luimba river on the Luimba settlement, about 54 kilometres (approx. 33 miles, red.) from the Lusaka city centre”. Zambia, landlocked at the crossroads of Central, Southern and East Africa and neighboured by the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Angola, is typically referred to as being the most central point in Southern Africa. Located on the plateau of Central Africa, most parts of the country are elevated, the average elevation being around 1.200 meters (3.900 ft), giving the country a generally moderate tropical climate.

“Zambia has a predominantly subtropical climate characterised by three distinct seasons: a hot and dry season running from mid August tot mid November, a wet rainy season from mid November to April, and a cool dry season from May to mid August”, Chileshe says, adding: “it is always a challenge to get to the farm in the rainy season as the roads are very bad, and there are no drainage systems in the remote areas of Zambia such as where I live.”

From a backyard vegetable patch to a full-sized farming operation

Chileshe farms on about 35 hectares (+/- 86 acres) and runs a mixed operation, cultivating various vegetables and rearing chickens. “Depending on the season, I focus on different farming crops and vegetables. My main crops are onions, potatoes, cabbage, soybean and maize. Next to that, I also rear meat chickens: I rear about 200 of them per six weeks.”

All this, Chileshe started on her own. It is not at all an uncommon thing for women to run the farms in Zambia, and all it took for her was a nudge from a friend. “I have been interested in farming since I was a teenager and practiced domestic farming from a young age in my parents’ garden. When we moved out of my parents’ house and I started living on my own, I made a backyard vegetable patch in my new home and continued there. I grew vegetables, spices and some sweetcorn to provide for my own family”. And that’s when she met Moddy, the friend who inspired her to go for her dream.

“Modester, or Moddy as we call her, was and still is a commercial farmer”, Chileshe says. “One day, she invited me to her farm to come get some quails and local vegetables. When we got to her field, I was completely overwhelmed at the sight of the sweetcorn I was growing in my backyard in this very big field. Amazed by what she did, I told Moddy I wanted to be just like her. Upon which she said ‘no worries, if you are interested, my neighbour is selling fourty hectares (98 acres, red.) of bare land!’”

“I immediately took up the challenge to acquire the whole land. This was my first success!”

Today, Mabala Farm has made a big impact in the local community by creating jobs for ten permanent and thirty to forty seasonal workers and contributing to the area’s social activities. “The ten permanent employees work both in the field and in marketing, sales and deliveries”, Chileshe comments. “The farm contributes a lot to the local community when it comes to job creation and community activities, such as traditional ceremonies and school activities.”

Chileshe sells her produce and meat to private companies such as Tiger Fields or the government under the Food Reserve Agency, and also goes to local markets.

Honey overflowing the kitchen

As we all know, a typical day on the farm does not exist and this is the same for Chileshe. “There are things to do throughout every season and even in one season, the days will be different from one to another. Growing season, for example, will involve planting and harvesting days or inspection days. On inspection days, I inspect my crops to see if they need attention, such as spraying to protect against insects or replanting due to floods.”

Some of the tasks on the farm are daily chores. This routine can mostly be found in taking care of the chickens at Mabala Farm. “The work in the chicken poultry house consists of a daily routine made up of pretty much the same duties”, she continues. “This will involve feeding, health and wellness checks and deliveries”.

But farming also comes with a whole lot of administration, as does any business. When Chileshe is done with her farm chores, she takes on the office work that comes with running her farm: “I do the book keeping, logistics, market pricing and employee supervision. And when I am done with all that, I also have to be a mom and a partner and take care of my family! (laughs)”

For Chileshe, starting and running a farm on her own is nothing special and prejudice towards women is not really a thing in her country’s agricultural industry. “In Zambia, we have a lot more women in agriculture than men, so no, I have never come across any prejudice towards me as a woman or towards any other women in our field.”

Farming in a remote area can sound romantic, but it also comes with a lot of challenges. Chileshe also has to deal with her country’s climate, which can make matters very complicated, very fast. “Getting to my farm can be challenging, especially during the rainy season. In my country, remote areas are not usually considered a priority on the National Planning Scheme so the drainage system is horrible.”

“The other big challenge here is when you need machinery. It has become incredibly expensive to rent machines such as tractors. Usually, they are rented out on a first come, first serve basis which means that when you are late to book your slot, you don’t get the equipment you need. Not getting the machines I need is one of my worst nightmares.”

But Chileshe’s biggest scare was when she nearly lost her soybean crops during a particularly bad rainy season. “We had had a lot of rains that season, which caused lots of floods. Therefore, we had to create drains in the fields to protect my soybeans. It was a 25 hectares (61 acres, red.) field! I was not ready to welcome losing my crops to these floods and buy more seed to replant. What a nightmare that was! Then came harvesting time… my soybean sheller broke down and I could not get a new one. Meanwhile, a buyer was waiting to buy all my soybeans! I nearly lost it there for a second, but in the end we managed to get a sheller on rent.”

“The end result was honey overflowing in my kitchen, as a local saying goes: I have sufficient funds and money so that food is always available in the house.”

Money is in the soil

If Chileshe has one piece of advice for other young farmers and especially young women who want to start a career in farming, it would be to join her.

“To all the young (future) farmers, I welcome you! Farming is challenging and that is why it is the most interesting job I have ever come across. Once you start, I promise you that you will never turn back. You will grow your talents as you keep challenging yourself.”

My motto? Impiya shaba mumushili: money is in the soil!

About Chileshe

Chileshe Emmeldah Chansa (41) grew up with a love for growing food. After a little nudge from a friend, she bought a field in the countryside near Lusaka, Zambia, to start farming. The plot was called Mabala Farm, ‘mabala’ meaning field as a reminder of Chileshe’s excitement upon buying her own field. Mabala Farm is a mixed operation, cultivating onions, potatoes, cabbage, soybean and maize and also rearing chickens for meat. Chileshe’s operation contributes to her local community by creating both jobs and community activities.

You can find Chileshe’s farm:

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This article was published in Women in Ag Magazine 2023-001. Click here to read the magazine. 

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