FRUIT is an important food security commodity. Not only does it provide the necessary nutrients for both rural and urban households, it also is a source of extra income through sales conducted almost all year round.
Zambia is endowed with different varieties of fruit trees, both exotic and indigenous.
The tropical climatic conditions in Zambia provide opportunities for the cultivation of various types of fruit species such as mango, papaya, bananas, guava, passion fruit, loquat, pineapple, avocado, citrus, apple, pear, peach, pomegranate, apricot, plum and grapes.
Beyond the cultivated species, there are a large number of indigenous fruit species like masuku, mabungo, monsoso, cashew nuts, masau and mpundu which if exploited could contribute to the economic development of the country and reduce poverty mainly in rural areas.
These fruits, especially indigenous species are well adapted and can ensure household food security during periods of natural disasters such as droughts.
The production and processing of fruits are labour intensive and therefore provide employment to a large segment of the population.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) paper on Non-Wood Forest Products in Zambia, exotic fruit trees such as mangoes, guavas, papaye, avocado and mulberry have been a permanent feature in homesteads and some even grow naturally in open areas without any human interference.
These, together with a number of wild fruits form a nutritious supplementary food in seasons when agricultural crops become scarce.
Species like Anisophyllea and Uapaca are common features along main roads and at markets between October to January, when they are offered for sale.
The other species that are offered for sale include annona senegalensis, azanza garckeana, diosphyros mesipiliformis, flacourtia indica, strychnos cocculoides, strychnos spinosa, tamarindus indica and syzygiums.
Almost all exotic fruits have been on the market and still continue to command a place in almost every market countrywide.
With the present harsh economic conditions, many more fruits are entering into the trade market and are gaining importance as major household income and food security commodities.
Trade in fruits and fruit trees could, therefore, create employment for many Zambians and offering a potential commodity that could break into international markets if well-researched on.
There is a vast diversity of fruit trees, the list of which is difficult to exhaust especially for indigenous species.
Many of these are highly consumed in many rural and some urban settings but have not been offered for sale previously because of the great abundance in the past years when they could not fetch a good price.
However, most fruit trees are becoming significant trade commodities as many species continue to become scarce at the local level due to deforestation brought about by the demand for wood fuel and agricultural expansion.
The future trend is, therefore, expected to be an upward trend in sales of many fruit trees both exotic and indigenous as the population rises and alternative income sources become scarce.
The high costs of agricultural inputs has forced many people to abandon farming because fertility levels of most land cannot support crop production without the use of inorganic fertilisers and other pesticides and agrochemicals to ward-off pathogenic (protecting against production of disease) infections.
This, therefore, means that many people are turning to the forests where, in certain areas, fruits are consumed even before they become ripe.
This is scary as the resource base in other areas is almost depleted.
There will be need to improve on processing technology so that value added products could be made from these fruits as a way of deterring constant visitations to the forests for fruit collection.
Storage facilities will have to be provided and the whole industry transformed so those durable products could be processed and preserved for use in times of need.
Currently, there is a lot of wastage because of lack of storage technology.
Fruits, which could be consumed throughout the year are eaten in four months while the rest is left to rot.
Zambian fruits have a high potential to be processed into juices, jams and other assorted drink types if only appropriate technology could be adopted.
Though many of these species have some commercial value in their unprocessed forms and usually find their way into urban markets, their potential as industrial raw products is largely unexploited.
Little work has been done towards their improvement, domestication or conservation.
Some of the fruit species may be endangered making their conservation a matter of urgency.
Small-scale horticulturists in Masaiti District have appealed to the Government and business companies to partner with the farmers to market their produce locally and abroad.
Kango-Kampala cooperative treasurer Dorothy Jere of Masaiti says there is need to help small scale horticulturists to sell their produce as doing so would contribute significantly to both the local and national economies.
Mrs Jere says the 70-member cooperative of horticulturists had the capacity to produce mixed fruit jam from their produce but lacked the market.
Instead, the farmers ended up producing jam in small quantities for domestic consumption.
She says there is need to create a deliberate marketing policy that would promote small-scale horticulturists.
Mrs Jere says she was not aware of the existence of the "Buy Zambia" campaign policy because it had not created an impact on the local market.
She says there were many natural fruits, which could be used to produce jam that was not exploited.
Given the support, Mrs Jere says the cooperative has the skills to produce a variety of jam from the fruits if the market was guaranteered.
She says the area was blessed with paw paw, mango, Mexican apple, pineapples and masuku trees, which the cooperatives maintained.
Mrs Jere says it was sad to see how mangoes were rotting in some areas when they could be make jam out of them.
She says the fruit jam business did not require complicated machinery for production.
The Government does not have a specific policy on the promotion of the horticulture in any of its programme but it is adequately covered in the national agriculture policy under the vision for the agriculture sector up to 2015.
Under this vision, food crops like maize; cassava, sorghum, millet, sweet potatoes, beans and groundnuts would be targeted for increased production and productivity.
Other crops targeted for production protection and research include indigenous crops like fruits and vegetables.
The policy states that the Government will promote horticultural products and expected that the products will double by 2015.
With the success of the national agriculture policy, it is expected that overall, the agriculture contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will rise to 30 per cent from the current 18-20 per cent.
That said, Zambian fruits have a very high potential to be processed into juices, jams and other assorted drink types if only appropriate technology could be adopted.
The Government policy on the issue is sound; it is, therefore, imperative that the private sector take advantage of the segment of this agriculture and form partnerships because of the huge benefits.