LAST month, president Edgar Lungu said his government would be buying more than one million tonnes of maize this year for strategic reserves during the forthcoming maize marketing season. This is a huge quantity of maize. In fact, if that is achieved, it would be more than double the amount of grain that the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) bought last year. President Lungu said government would be taking advantage of this year’s expected bumper harvest to buy more maize beyond the country’s annual consumption.
This is a wonderful pronouncement, and President Lungu did well to put it on record so that if this is not achieved, government will be held to account. But while we congratulate the President’s pledge to buy one million tonnes of maize, two questions arise. At how much will government be buying the maize and where will the money come from? We ask this because already, the Minister of Finance says we are faced with a K20 billion budget deficit and government revenue is dwindling at a worrying rate.
Our opinion is that if government sets its priorities straight, where to get the money for buying this maize should not be a problem. Covid-19 has created a lot of organisational problems, but it has also provided huge savings for government. As things stand, people who used to fly around aimlessly are no longer flying. The President, his minister and their huge entourages have not been flying since the beginning of the year. Surely, there must be some savings somewhere. We hear that Cabinet Office has cut salaries for top government earners by about 20 per cent. The question of whether that is legal or not is subject for another editorial opinion. But all that is money saved, and as long as government’s priorities are upright, there shouldn’t be a problem buying one million tonnes of maize.
The problem that concerns us is the exploitation of farmers. For years, government has had the habit of dictating very punitive pricing for maize. What they don’t realise is that this doesn’t only force famers to sell their grain to briefcase buyers who export, but it also discourages growers from planting the ‘loss making crop’. Think about a farmer who has to borrow money for fertilizer, a farmer who has to transport the grain for hundreds of kilometres to the market. What can K70 or K80 do to cover the production cost? Government must be considerate.
Secondly, we would like to suggest that the Food Reserve Agency buys maize on cash basis this year. Let them not get maize with a view to tricking the farmers. It will be unfair to grab the maize from the farmers and then keep them toiling for payment until 2021 campaigns start. Government must attune the revised national budget towards securing food security. Buy maize, not more guns and war aeroplanes or military tanks. The war that will kill us next year is hunger. If you don’t sweep this maize from the market, the price of mealie meal will skyrocket to unthinkable proportions again.
We don’t know if government is aware that maize dealers from DRC have already started coming into Zambia to look for food. They know that the hunger that will hit the region next year is serious. Maize and other food crops will be a very scarce commodity. Government must be concerned that even with this pronouncement and pledge from the President, Zambian farmers have already started selling maize to foreigners. In fact, what Congolese buyers are doing now is that they are going round the country and buying the whole maize field before it is even harvested. So, most of the fields in the rural areas are sold to visionary briefcase buyers.
Ba Lusambo and your fellow President in State House, please know that time to control the mealie meal price for next year is now. Don’t crook the farmers by getting their produce on nkongole, and when they sell to foreigners and the commodity becomes scarce, you start arresting retailers and bulk buyers. Think ahead and ensure that there is enough grain so that millers have no excuse for selling maize at K200 per bag.
In fact, when we talk about food security, this should not be restricted to maize. We must remember that the same President who said he wants to buy one million tonnes of maize also asked us to think beyond maize and resist nshima dependence. People can’t think beyond nshima if maize is the only crop we respect. All food crops must be considered for purchase if we are to ensure food security.
Food security is key to national planning for obvious reasons. Everybody has to eat and food is a basic human right. Because of its essential nature, the producers of food need to be protected and supported. The problem that we have in Zambia is that the availability of food is used as a weapon. While they have no capacity to produce food, the ruling elite control how that food is sold. This creates a problem of unfair price controls. What we eat should not exploit those who produced it.