JUST giving you some food for thought. Last week, the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) made one of the most important announcements of the year when it informed the nation and maize growers in particular that it had set the purchase price of a K50 kg bag of mealie meal at K280 from K180. Unprecedented!
The agency also announced that it had put a moratorium on the purchase of Soya beans from farmers because it had a huge stockpile from the previous season.
That, however, did not sit very well with some farmers and not shocking at all, some loud mouthed-‘ has been’ politician who usually takes it upon himself as the know it all guru of all gurus; one who has never seen anything good in whatever pronouncement the New Dawn government and in particular President Hakainde Hichilema has ever made, expectedly condemned the new policy.
While many hailed the announcement as one of the most progressive pro-farmer moves by any government in a long time, the rumblings and grumbling in some quarters were amplified by this god of the know it all .
Some genuinely concerned stakeholders contended that, the new pricing band would also send the retail price of the commodity (mealie meal) sky-rocketing, and further out of the reach of the ordinary citizen.
For others, the argument was that, farmers would be stuck with their Soya beans harvest and would fail to sell it at a good price and eventually, they would be forced to off-load it to price sharks at a very depressed value.
Somewhat a fair argument to a certain extent, but not a completely correct position to be advanced.
Not especially that it was being peddled for political expediency. By those known to be in the rank and file of the doomsday cult; those whose disposition is to sow seeds of discontent to an unsuspecting gullible few, Anarchy their final solution.
It is important to understand from the outset that the economic fundamentals prescribe very clearly what this new pricing policy entails and how it will impact the maize marketing sector in the short, immediate and long term.
Ideally, the new FRA price of K280 is expected to spur more maize production because it is the best there has been in ages. And once there is surplus and sufficient stock on the local market, prices are expected to come down. There may even be enough for export.
But first and foremost, let us get back to the basics and understand and appreciate the role that the FRA plays in the country.
The FRA, a successor of Namboard, was set up in 1996 as a semi-autonomous corporate body charged with the responsibility of managing the strategic National Food Security Reserve.
It was established under the Food Reserve Act of April 1995
This was to ensure that a reliable supply of designated agriculture commodities for the country was maintained to meet local shortfalls and to m e e t such other food emergencies caused by drought or floods, or by such other natural disasters.It was also set up to ensure that it efficiently managed sustainable food reserves and making sure that national food security and income through the provision of complementary and high quality marketing and social services.
With this mandate, the agency has strived to carry out quite effectively since inception, coming in extremely handy in times that our food security as a nation has been threatened or and in specific regions when calamity has hit and government needed to respond.
A recent point in reference is the artificial shortage which hit the nation a month ago, this coming as a result of rampant cross border smuggling, especially into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
This caused a 100 to 200, sometimes 300 percent increase of mealie meal prices in some cases, the crisis was further exacerbated due to hoarding by millers.
The FRA and the ministry of Agriculture moved in immediately and off loaded thousands of metric tons in strategic reserves of maize to local millers to counter the emergency.
It is part of the mandate of the FRA to ensure that such threats to national food security were countered to maintain social and political stability.
Such is the core mandate of the FRA.
For purposes of illustration, in the last crisis, the FRA offloaded around 300,000 tonnes of maize to millers, selling the grain at K4,000 per tonne.
The agency through the community sales programme also sold 1,290 tonnes of maize in about 33 districts countrywide.
Current strategic reserves stand at about 500,000 tonnes of maize stored in 1,200 depots countrywide.
The mandate of the FRA is very clear on what it can buy and what it cannot, and how much of it can be stored.
This, bearing in mind that, the purpose of holding food (maize) in reserve is primarily to, ensure that we as a nation have something to fall back on in bad times.
It also follows therefore, that, the agency can only buy so much because of among other considerations, storage capacity.
Maize, being Zambia’s staple food crop and maize farming the most dominant agriculture activity among small scale farmers accounts for sixty percent of the country’s calorie intake and with other cereals provides almost two-thirds of the dietary energy supply (Goverahet at 2008; Mason and Myers2013; Mwanamwenge and Harris, 2017), Therefore, it is not surprising that grain milling is a dominant sub sector within Zambia’s food processing sector. (Saasa2000, Hampwaye and Soren,2014)
Further, it has been established by a number of studies on food processing in Zambia that, the majority of locally owned firms are engaged in in maize processing and these range from very small enterprises (hammer mills) to fairly large enterprises (Saasa,2000Sutton and Langmead, 2013;SAFIC2014).
Because of its position as a staple food, it naturally takes pole-position as the most preferred cereal amongst many others to be selected for strategic reserve.
Now, in the wake of government’s pronouncement that it may not immediately take in extra Soya beans because of a backlog of last year’s crop should not be a matter that should be politicized. Maize takes precedent.
It only takes collaboration to see how best farmers can be assisted to find good buyers to protect those who may be desperate to sell their produce quickly and therefore easily fall prey to price sharks.
This is part of the reason that the FRA in partnership with the ministry of Agriculture during the recent crisis sold their maize only to millers at a subsidised price, who in turn processed and sold to the retailers, thus mitigating the high prices shortage problem.
The overall idea was to boost mealie meal production so that the country remained food secure. That is part of the FRA mandate.
The concern by the soya beans farmers is justified to a certain degree, if the pricing mechanism of Soya beans in the last marketing season is anything to go by.
Last season, the FRA was buying a 50Kg bag of soya beans at around K550. It was anticipated that this year, the price would shoot up to probably K650 per 50kg bag.
With the moratorium on purchases of soya beans by the FRA, the price sharks have since moved in and offering a take it or leave it price of K150 per 50 kgs bag, making it a mockery of a sale, in the estimation of the farmer.
This, in relation to the inputs; seed, fertiliser, pesticides and labour involved.
The only respite is the very few soya beans millers who have agreed to buying at around K300 per K50 kg bag.
But there is a silver lining in every dark cloud the old adage goes and if soya beans farmers can even come together and set up co-operatives which can establish processing plants to add value to their crop, it will all turn out into a win-win situation.
With the flagship Constituency Development Funds (CDF), there is a life line and not all is lost.
Soya beans by its nature can be processed in so many other food supplements simply by adding a little value to it.
Here are some of the foods derived from soya beans; soymilk, soya meal, tofu, soy sauce, animal feed in poultry and beef, miso, tempeh, natto, soya oil, fortified cereals, and many others.
So only if the farmers can form these groups and apply for funding, it could make life happier for them.
Government can only do so much in buying off food for strategic purposes from the hard working farmers of Zambia, and provide an enabling environment for them.
The rest can only be made possible by the farmers themselves.
An unfortunate point of reference is looking at the tomato farmers of the country. Just imagine the amount of the fruit/ vegetable that goes to waste every day.
Thousands upon thousands of tonnes into the garbage dumps and yet, there is a very simple solution to it all – Value addition.
If only a cooperative or two can place a canning or drying tomato processing plant near the major fresh produce markets, all that over ripe wasted rotting fruit can be preserved to be sold on another day.
Do we really need the FRA to come and buy our tomatoes? Not with the opportunity government has laid bare on the table for us to utilize. Or is it that the next song that some self- proclaimed political-economic messiah will soon be singing; just how government has abandoned its people and neglected to buy off all the tomatoes from the farmer?
Let us see the light and the good intention of government
I am just giving you some food for thought, a little food for thought