THE pattern is always predictable.
Every year the Government undertakes to leave maize marketing to the private sector, but political pressure mounts as farmers demand for a floor price and assured market. Within a few months the resolve is broken and Government once again borrows money from banks to purchase maize from all the outlying areas of the country.
From all indications this year is not likely to be any different. Political pressure is slowly mounting on the pretext that Government has abandoned peasants in outlying areas of the country who are forced to sell to briefcase traders offering a pittance for the maize.
There is therefore growing demand for a floor price and an announcement from Government ordering the Food Reserve Agency to purchase all the maize, well beyond the strategic reserve requirement.
With an election next year it is very difficult to see the Government maintain its nerve and see through this very fundamental shift, that would be of value to the farmers too as they will be able to negotiate better than the FRA “floor” price.
The political pressure, driven more by politicians than farmers themselves, is likely to intensify because it sounds persuasive and therefore politically tenable. The Government may succumb, announce a floor price and it will be back to business as usual with Government incurring a huge cost in mopping up maize from around the country.
This will be an opportunity lost considering Government’s intention to introduce solar maize mills in all the districts of the country. From all accounts the mills will be related to cooperatives which have traditionally served as marketing agents for the FRA.
The concept of drawing the private sector into maize marketing is correct, but the application must be thought through and perhaps staggered in implementation. The introduction of solar milling plants must be related to the creation of more effective cooperative societies that will be involved in maize marketing.
This will require that Government plays a role in ensuring that logistics and accountability measures are implemented on the ground by making cooperatives more effective in marketing and storage. It should be possible for the cooperative in Petauke to buy, store and mill the maize without transporting the maize to Chipata or indeed Lusaka.
The very first step on the part of the Government is to get as many extension officers as possible to work with cooperative societies where they exist to conscientise the farmer and raise awareness of the developments. Where cooperatives do not exist the Government must take the lead to educate and persuade farmers to form cooperatives.
The success of the entire exercise will depend on the amount of awareness and education that the farmers will receive. Unless they are assured of a market and a decent price, farmers will not sell to briefcase traders but it is the prevailing air of uncertainty that is forcing peasants to part with their produce.
It will take time to change the mindset of our farmers who have been conditioned to believe in Government-led marketing, but change they must if the market will be given an opportunity of exerting itself for their own good too.