The appetite for foreign products in Zambia is truly phenomenal.
Our glittering malls springing up all over the country are full of nothing but imported products starting all the way from ground nuts to electronics, and in between are wooden products such as furniture which our ordinary carpenters in the townships can make. Instead we are importing complete sofas and knock down units that are assembled in Zambia and proudly sold for the foreign products that they are.
Little wonder there is so much pressure on our foreign exchange resulting in a shortage that leads to depreciation as traders clear the limited dollars to import goods. Christmas has observed a frenzy in the import of toys and other gifts which are hemorrhaging the country of its limited reserves of foreign currency.
What is most depressing and disconcerting is that we have no credible and well managed import substitution scheme at any level of the economy and more importantly commerce. The result is that most retail outlets proffer the inevitable excuse that there are no local products hence their decision to import.
It is difficult to counter this excuse because as a nation we have never given diversification as a special programme to be managed and coordinated by a specialized institution.
The seeming demise of Zambia Export Growers Association seems to have totally disengaged the nation from producing for export save for copper and other minerals such as emeralds, amethyst and other products.
However, as rightly observed by the Minister of Finance, a tonne of cashew nuts fetches almost 3 times the price of copper.
Hence it was proper that Government found it fit to invest in that project for the long term. The same should be done to all the products that are imported into the country.
The new IDC must be able to identify high value products that can be produced locally to supplant imports. Once identified the Government must make every effort to provide support to grow the specific sector and marketing to ensure that producers are not lumbered with products.
This must start with vegetables and poultry products.
There are disturbing reports that we are importing vegetables and poultry products because the available supply is of poor quality. This is unacceptable.
We can improve the quality of vegetables through targeted extension through the Ministry of Agriculture and through a select team that can be charged with this.
Our soils are rich and will grow any product. Such items as Irish potatoes should not come from South Africa. We should be able to engage local farmers who can grow quality products to meet the needs of fast food outlets as well as secondary items such as crisps.
The most urgent requirement is to marshal our resources, identify needs and employ those resources in the respective direction.
It is not fair to expect an ordinary peasant to engage in strawberry production because he may not have access to appropriate seeds, chemicals and eventual marketing.
But given support from central government or indeed any institution such farmers will rise to the occasion and produce quality products.
We challenge the ministries of Agriculture and Livestock, Commerce to start effective development programmes involving the ordinary people.
Coordination is the answer.