Premiercon Starch Company Limited produces starch from cassava and sweet potato in the North-Western Province of Zambia, in the Kalumbila District. The starch has applications as a reagent in mining processes, in paper manufacturing and as an adhesive for cardboard packaging. Founder Lubasi Yuyi tells How we made it in Africa about the steps he took to build the company.
From civil servant to agro-processor
In 2012, Lubasi Yuyi worked for the Zambian Government as the provincial lands officer of the North-Western Province. Part of his job was to oversee the process when a new mine was set up in the region.
“When I worked there, I witnessed how three new mines were started in just 10 years. While those households that were displaced as a result of the commissioning of the mine were compensated if their land was impacted, I realised any further livelihood support was at the mercy of the mine developer,” he says.
The impact of one mine, roughly 50,000 hectares in size, could affect as many as 4,000 households.
“After setting up Kalumbila copper mine, which displaced around 5,000 households, I wondered whether we could integrate these communities into the mining supply chain by finding something they could cultivate or grow and sell back to the mines,” explains Yuyi.
He looked at crops that were known to the households, the ones they already cultivated for consumption. Then he identified those with low-cost inputs that could be used as an ingredient in the mine’s supply chain.
“I did a complete study and identified cassava that could be utilised in starch production. It was a crop the farmers knew how to cultivate. The engagements with the mine, however, were not an immediate success. They stated they could not take responsibility for such a project and that government should run it or it would have to be done as a business.”
The government didn’t have the capacity to take on such a project, so Yuyi quit his job, to set up a business that would facilitate starch production from cassava for the mines. He drew up a business plan, identified the technology and equipment needed for the processing and searched for a site for the plant.
“The Kalumbila copper mine shared the costs when we distributed the first cuttings of the suitable cassava varietal to the community but we still had to find finance for the processing plant,” Yuyi remembers.
Establishing an outgrower scheme
From 2013 to 2015, the business focused solely on creating a network of smallholder farmers who could supply cassava to the processing plant (outgrower scheme).
“We have had to improvise with our outgrower scheme by ensuring we give the farmers improved cassava varieties that are high starch yielding but have a shorter maturity period. The local variety that most people used had a maturation time of three years. Not only does this work against the farmer’s food security, but it is also not feasible for us in the business model,” says Yuyi. “The one we provided has a yield per hectare of close to 55 tonnes and matures in a year.”
The long wait for the plant to be commissioned
Finding funding for the processing plant took some time.
“There wasn’t any functioning starch plant in Zambia, so it made business sense. However, the use of starch in mining as an ingredient in some of the metallurgical processes was something new,” reveals Yuyi. “The business was therefore seen as high risk and the banks were not interested in giving us a loan. We finally obtained part of the funding from the Citizens Economic Empowerment Commission, a body under the Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprises Development, on a low-interest, long-gestation period and mobilised the rest from shareholders as equity.”
In 2017, three years after officially registering the business, payment to the manufacturer of the equipment in China was made. Then the company had to wait for delivery. It finally arrived in 2019 and was installed the same year. However, there was one major hiccup: there was no power supply to the site. Premiercon had to install a power line and during this time, the Chinese team, which was assisting with the installation, returned home.
Once power was sorted and sufficient boreholes drilled for the water required for the processing, Premiercon invited the team back to finish the work. Unfortunately, Covid-19 had hit the world. With national lockdowns in place, the processing plant timeline took another major hit.
“It was quite a long, expensive and laborious process. During this time, though, Premiercon was studying all the uses of starch and how to best modify the starch for possible uses in different industries. While we lost some time until the plant was finally commissioned three months ago, we believe we gained various potential clients that are now able to offtake our starch and we are no longer solely reliant on the mines,” Yuyi says.
The processing plant has a current capacity of 48 tonnes a day.
Finding, and losing, customers
Initially, Premiercon had an agreement with the Kalumbila mine as a possible buyer for the starch, but in the period it took to set up the processing plant, the agreement expired and was not renewed. The company has continued doing trials with different mining houses, reaching out to others in the province and beyond.
Its main customers are in the construction and packaging industries. Premiercon provides starch for the production of gypsum board, paper and cardboard boxes. “Our biggest buyers will still be the mining houses but we cannot supply until we ramp up our production volumes,” says Yuyi.
Premiercon has just over 3,000 outgrowers; however, this is not enough to meet the market demand that Yuyi believes exists. “Our biggest worry is the supply of improved growing material. Finding the appropriate varietal cuttings here in Zambia is difficult and we are looking at methods like rapid-tissue culture seed multiplication to increase the supply.”
Developing new uses for the product
Yuyi and his team have a dedicated laboratory at the processing facility. In this lab, the company tests modifications to the starch to achieve the right strength for the different end customers.
So far, Premiercon has achieved success when testing the starch in processes that depress carbon, silica and other impurities when mining copper. The starch can also be used for other metallurgical processes in mining.
“The feedback from the trials is very encouraging and we are confident the mines will use our products,” adds Yuyi. “Our products are locally produced and biodegradable, making us a good green source for input materials.”
Nothing goes to waste
Yuyi is also optimistic about the by-products the company can produce from waste material.
“We have two forms of waste: solid and liquid. When we crush the cassava in its fresh form and separate the outer part of the root crop from the rest, we get the sap. The liquid waste from this process is used to produce a probiotic. It is a growth booster for plants and can be used for the biological control of ammonia by chicken farmers,” he says.
Yuyi sees strong growth potential in the application of the liquid waste. “Someone can spend $25 on this product and have enough concentrate for a whole hectare. It is cheaper than inorganic fertilisers and is a fantastic organic option for plant growth. It also breaks down within the soil into the different components that help with soil rehabilitation. This is why we don’t want to call it a fertiliser, but rather a probiotic.”
The solid waste could be used to make ‘green’ charcoal briquettes, as a substrate for mushroom growing and as a food source for maggot farming. The company is currently exploring these options.
Few competitors on the horizon
Yuyi says he is aware of one other company looking at starch production, but he is not concerned. “I don’t think they have done their market research very well or seem to understand the different customer demands. We plan everything with the end-customer in mind.”
Premiercon Starch Company CEO Lubasi Yuyi’s contact information
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