CHARLES CHISALA, Lusaka
JESUS’ disciple, Phillip, could not wait to break the great news.
“We have found him of whom Moses in the Torah and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph,” he panted to Nathanael.
But a dismissive Nathanael said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip goaded him, “Come and see.” John 1:43-46, KJV.
Of course, something good had indeed come out of Nazareth. Wasn’t Jesus the Messiah born and brought up there?
Similarly, before the arrival of the oil palm tree plantation, some people might have been asking, “Can anything good come out of Senior Chief Kopa’s chiefdom?”
Like Phillip, Patrick Luo, who is headman Sankalimba, is ready to challenge them, “Come and see.”
Mr Luo was born and has lived in Sankalimba village all his life.
Since the arrival of Zambeef Products Plc in 2008 to set up Zampalm, an oil palm tree plantation and processing mill, he has seen the transformation of his and other surrounding villages unfolding right before his ageing eyes.
The Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) took over the venture in April for US$16 million.
Since the first seedlings were planted on 168 hectares in 2008, the estate has grown to 3,000 hectares of oil palm trees.
Nine hundred more hectares will be planted in the next three years under an ambitious expansion programme.
Estate manager David Subakanya says in 2019 alone the company will cultivate on 300 hectares.
Just the kind of drumbeat headman Sankalimba wants to hear.
The plantation, the nursery and palm crude oil mill are located on the edge of the Bangweulu Wetlands in Kanchibiya district in Muchinga Province, about 100km west of Mpika district.
Zampalm is a huge boon to the people of Kopa.
Headman Sankalimba recalls, “When Zambeef came in 2008 we thought they had come to grab our land, to displace us. People rose up against us headmen, accusing us and the senior chief of selling their chiefdom.”
He explains that Senior Chief Kopa called him and other headmen to his palace and, in the presence of Mr Subakanya, explained the benefits of allowing Zambeef to set up an oil palm tree plantation and mill.
He instructed them to help the people understand that the investment would create jobs, especially for the youth and women, and extricate the community out of the chokehold of poverty.
“They identified my village as the suitable site for the offices and the nursery. Mr Subakanya told me that I would be involved in the implementation of the relocation,” headman Sankalimba said.
Only his village would be moved.
The palace meeting allayed all the villagers’ fears.
When Zampalm started employing local people to work at the nursery and the plantation site, the villagers started seeing the benefits.
“In 2009, my wife was employed. The job brought a big change in my house. She started bringing money every month.
“She was able to buy food, bath soap, washing powder, clothes and kitchen utensils. She even started buying books and uniforms for our grandchildren who were going to school. We were very happy,” the old man said.
His wife is still working.
Before the arrival of Zampalm the local people subsisted on cassava, fish, cikanda and edible caterpillars (ifinkubala) for a livelihood.
The biggest challenge was education. It was a nightmare for parents to raise money to enable them to send or keep their children in school.
“Although in the past we had plenty of fish, there was nowhere to sell it during the fishing ban. Even after the ban we could only sell the fish in Mpika, which is just too far. Only a few with bicycles could manage,” headman Sankalimba said.
The steady depletion of fish stocks in the local water bodies made matters worse.
But all that is history now.
“We the people who live in this area are very grateful for this Zampalm. We used to live in small houses made of raw bricks and roofs of grass. Today, as I speak, there are very few families who are still living in such houses, as you may have seen for yourself,” headman Sankalimba said.
He said, “We are living in bigger houses now with corrugated iron sheet roofs. We have tea and bread for breakfast, we have no problem sending our children to school and the shops are near. You can get what you want from the shops.”
Headman Sankalimba brags that children are now looking smart in the villages because their parents have money to spend on them.
“Even single women, including widows, are now living in their own burnt-brick houses with iron sheet roofs. It is a different place today from what it used to be before 2008,” he said.
Headman Sankalimba said he and other headmen had resolved not to allow anyone to mislead the people in the area concerning development because of the positive change the investment has brought in their families.
He said, “No one can come here and mislead the people. We are grateful to the government. We never expected this to happen in our area. We are very happy.”
The headman attributes the transformation taking place in the area to Senior Chief Kopa’s hard work and the harmonious relationship Mr Subakanya has cultivated with the local community.
“Mr Subakanya is a blessing to both Zampalm and our community. He is humble and respectful to everyone here, including children. He has even formed village committees through which he consults us and asks us to raise any concerns about the company and the workers,” headman Sankalimba said.
His voluntary testimony is an example of what happens when investors elicit and win the support of the local community towards a common goal.
The partnership between Zampalm and the Bisa people of the Kopa chiefdom has produced tangible fruits, and it is worth emulating.
Something good is happening there.
The benefits are visible.