By Danstan Kaunda
Lusaka — Can holding down the cost of milling grain, using renewable energy, hold the line on food prices in Zambia?
For Inonge Imutowana, buying food for her family of six is becoming increasingly costly. On the outskirts of the capital, a 25-kilo bag of staple mealie meal that cost 65 kwacha a year ago now is selling for 140 kwacha ($14).
Across Zambia, drought that swept across the region last year, leading to widespread crop failure, has sent cereal prices soaring.
The high cost of buying food has persuaded a share of small-scale farmers to hang onto their maize, rice and cassava harvests and mill them for their own household use and for their livestock, rather than selling the grain into the market.
But a combination of higher fuel prices and unstable electrical supplies – both the result of lack of rainfall hitting hydropower – mean many small grain mills are charging higher prices for milling, or don’t have sufficient capacity.
But Zambia’s government hopes it has an answer: Since 2015 it has been installing hundreds of small solar-powered mills in rural areas as a way to help hold down the price of producing food.
One of those, built last November, is now operating just seven kilometers from Imotowana’s farm, which lies about 50 kilometres east of Lusaka.
“Before this, we used to take (our grain) to a diesel-operated hammer mill (about 20 kilometres away) or buy commercially produced mealie meal in smaller quantities, just as we could afford it,” said the 54 year-old farmer.
Now “it is cheaper milling here,” she said.
According to the Zambia Cooperation Federation (ZCF), a government agency that is installing the mills, over 250 have has been set up so far out of 2,000 planned.
Patrick Mumbi, an operator of one of the plants, said the 60 solar panels that power the mill can generate 15 megawatts of electricity.
“To mill maize or rice, we need less than nine megawatts of electricity” each day to process about two tonnes of grain, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. That means “we have surplus electricity output”.