Zambia is one of Sub-Saharan Africa's most highly urbanized countries. About one-half of the country's 11.5 million people are concentrated in a few urban zones strung along the major transportation corridors, while rural areas are under-populated. Unemployment and underemployment are serious problems. Per capita annual incomes are currently at about two-thirds of their levels at independence, and at $1400, place the country among the world's poorest nations. Social indicators continue to decline, particularly in measurements of life expectancy at birth (about 50 years) and maternal and infant mortality (85 per 1,000 live births). The high population growth rate of 2.3% per annum makes it difficult for per capita income to increase. The country's rate of economic growth cannot support rapid population growth or the strain which HIV/AIDS-related issues (i.e., rising medical costs, street children, and decline in worker productivity) places on government resources.
For the first time since 1989 Zambia's economic growth reached the 6%-7% mark(in 2007) needed to reduce poverty significantly. Privatization of government-owned copper mines relieved the government from covering mammoth losses generated by the industry and greatly improved the chances for copper mining to return to profitability and spur economic growth. Copper output has increased steadily since 2004, due to higher copper prices and the opening of new mines. The maize harvest was again good in 2005, helping boost GDP and agricultural exports. Cooperation continues with international bodies on programs to reduce poverty, including a new lending arrangement with the IMF in the second quarter of 2004. A tighter monetary policy will help cut inflation, but Zambia still has a serious problem with high public debt.
The Zambian economy has historically been based on the copper-mining industry. Output of copper had fallen, however, to a low of 228,000 tonnes in 1998, continuing a 30-year decline in output due to lack of investment, and more recently, low copper prices and uncertainty over privatization. In 2001, the first full year of a privatized industry, Zambia recorded its first year of increased productivity since 1973. The future of the copper industry in Zambia was thrown into doubt in January 2002, when investors in Zambia's largest copper mine announced their intention to withdraw their investment. However, surging copper prices from 2004 to the present day rapidly rekindled international interest in Zambia's copper sector with a new buyer found for KCCM and massive investments in expanding capacity launched. China has become a major investor in the Zambian copper industry, and in February 2007, the two countries announced the creation of a Chinese-Zambian economic partnership zone around the Chambishi copper mine.
Today copper mining is central to the economic prospects for Zambia, but concerns remain that the economy is not diversified enough to cope with a collapse in international copper prices.