By BRIAN HATYOKA –
ISSUES around maize and mealie meal prices have remained topical and sensitive in Zambia for some time now.
This is because maize, which is the raw material for producing mealie meal, is Zambia’s stable crop.
During the first quarter of 2020, the public raised concerns on maize supply and mealie-meal prices.
Specifically, major retail outlets across Zambia ran out of mealie meal and so citizens had to join long queues to buy the commodity an exorbitant price of more than K200 for a 25 kilogram bag of breakfast meal.
It was not clear if the shortage of the commodity was artificial or genuine especially that there was a lot of finger pointing between millers and traders.
Some millers attributed the shortage of mealie meal to lack of maize in the country and blamed traders for hiking the prices while the Government insisted that the country had adequate maize.
Agriculture Minister Michael Katambo said the shortage of mealie-meal was uncalled for because all the millers under the tripartite agreement with Government through the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) had enough maize to last up to the next crop marketing season.
Mr Katambo said the Government would not allow unscrupulous business people to create artificial mealie-meal shortages and come up with exorbitant prices so as to exploit consumers
FRA, Millers Association of Zambia (MAZ) and Grain Traders Association of Zambia (GTAZ) entered into a legally binding agreement which have set out conditions such as prices, penalties and monitoring.
However, many citizens still complained of mealie meal shortages and hikes in the prices of the commodity irrespective of the tripartite agreement.
Patriotic Front (PF) Livingstone Constituency chairperson Elias Mwila said the ruling party conducted a survey around markets by March month-end upon receiving a tip off from a citizen that mealie prices were exorbitant.
Mr Mwila said the findings were that a 25kg breakfast was going at K250 in Libuyu Township from the previous price of below K150.
He said most markets in Livingstone were selling the commodity around the same hiked price.
“This prompted us to visit all the millers here in Livingstone to check on their production and prices. Millers were shocked with the price of commodity which they sale at agreed price in tripartite agreement with Government. Our meeting with selected millers gave us confidence that they are doing their part responsibly by selling 25kg breakfast at K130 which the retailers were supposed to sell around K136,” he said.
According to Mr Mwila, millers put public notices on correct pricing saying all retailers who would not adhere to the guideline would not continue getting mealie meal from the said producers.
“We therefore ask these marketeers or retailers, who are exploiting the public, to stop with immediately effect. As PF, we are not going to sit idle and see our people being exploited by selling 25kg breakfast at K250. We also request the public to report these exploiters to relevant authorities whenever they visit these shops to buy mealie meal,” he said.
A Lusaka resident Christine Mwaaba, who also bemoaned high mealie meal prices, complained that some retailers had taken advantage of the alleged shortage of the commodity to sell mealie meal in smaller bags at exorbitant prices.
Ms Mwaaba said even restaurants had reduced the portions of nshima when preparing food for customers especially take-away packs.
“At our home, we resorted to eating other foodstuffs like cassava and sump to avoid long queues when buying mealie meal. For instance, the initial price of Pamela (smallest pack) was K1 but most retailers are now selling between K2 and K3,” she said.
On an estimated population of 17.6 million in Zambia, the total maize required for human consumption amounts to 1,558,339 tonnes according to Agriculture Minister Michael Katambo.
With 409,018 tonnes required for industrial use, the total requirement for both human and industrial use is 1,967,357 tonnes.
It is however not yet clear on the expected crop yield for this year but MAZ president Andrew Chintala is positive that the country will have a good harvest.
The move is expected to stabilise the supply of maize and prices of mealie meal on the market.
Mr Chintala said in a response to a press query that from the last stock monitoring committee meeting, the stakeholders submitted the total maize stock of more than 280,000 tonnes which is enough to last until the next maize marketing season 2019/2020.
“In my view and going by the survey conducted in the eight provinces toured so far, Zambia is poised for a bumper harvest approximately over and above 3,000,000 tonnes. This means that meaning there will be no need to import maize,” he said.
Mr Chintala said millers require 1,800,000 tonnes of grade A white maize every year, inclusive of commercial or industrial use and human consumption.
“During deficit periods or years the millers face numerous challenges in getting maize for their operations, some who don’t have enough storage capacities run out before the next season and when they want to source for maize on the market, it cannot be found or it will be there but expensive,” he said.
On the shortage of mealie meal and hikes in the price of the commodity, Mr Chintala said the price increase was as a result of panic buying and increased demand for the commodity.
He said the supply could not meet the demand as some millers shut down the operations due to lack of access to maize on the market as the only maize available was on the tripartite programme.
“To mitigate the shortage and price distortions, more millers must be brought on the tripartite programme,” Mr Chintala said.
He said to ensure that consumers are protected from exploitation in the value chain under the tripartite agreement, millers for the very first time have put the price tags on the bags.
Mr Chintala however said unscrupulous traders took advantage of the market and still exploited consumers.
“It’s worth noting that millers do not have any legal authority to control price on the open market,” he said.
On claims that some millers were exporting their products admits the shortage of the commodity, Mr Chintala said the Government announce a ban on the export of maize and its by-products in May 2019 hence it was not possible for millers to export the commodities.
“The recent shortage recorded on the market especially the Copperbelt, is that the releases of maize was largely to the Lusaka based millers and a few on the Copperbelt and other towns hence the impact. However, we have engaged Government to release maize to the millers to stabilize the supply,” he said.
Mr Chintala said millers expected the market forces of demand and supply to kick in to take care of the market as the country approach the harvest season.
“We expect the principle of demand and supply to take care of the prices. It’s a common principle and prices will drop,” he said.
On recent media reports suggesting that some farmers in some parts of the country were getting money from some business persons in exchange of their maize fields which have not yet harvested, Mr Chintala said such a scenario must not be encouraged as most of these farmers risk been exploited.
“It is imperative that Chiefs and farmers representatives educate or encourage the farmers to hold on and wait for two to three weeks for the start of the season and the moisture content to drop for them to trade at market price to their benefits,” he said.
Mr Chintala’s advice to stakeholders through the food value chain is that they need to promote programmes that will enhance production yield levels and employ more extension officers.
He also said there was need to provide technical support, improve on information dissemination system so that farmers are well informed.
By and large, there is need to ensure timely delivery of farming inputs and educate farmers to plant correct seed varieties in time as a way of sustaining a good crop harvest.
The issue of enhancing steady maize supply and lower mealie meal prices on the market require concerted efforts from all stakeholders in the food supply chain.