Friday, 2 January 2009

FOOD FIRST

By Gershom Ndhlovu

Just under two decades ago, during my undergraduate days at the University of Zambia, I did a course under what was then African Development Studies which was called the Food Crisis and Agrarian Crisis in Africa.

During that course, I came across a book entitled Food First by Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins one line of which has been etched on my mind over these years--the scandalous use of fertilisers on golf courses and on non-food crops around the world which in turn pushes up the price of the commodity for the poor to afford.

In Lappe’s work through the Institute for Food and Development under whose auspices she wrote Food First, she has argued that world hunger is caused not by the lack of food but rather by the inability of hungry people to gain access to the abundant amount of food that exists in the world and/or food-producing resources because they are simply too poor.

According to her biography on Wikipedia, she has posited that our current "thin democracy" creates a maldistribution of power and resources that inevitably creates waste and an artificial scarcity of the essentials for sustainable living.

Lappe makes the radical argument that what she calls "living democracy," i.e. not only what we do in the voting booth but through our daily choices of what we buy and how we live, provides a mental and behavioral framework of goods and goodness that is aligned with our basic human nature. She believes that only by "living democracy" can we effectively solve today's social and environmental crises.

Quite clearly, my Food Crisis course has now come home to roost considering that Zambia is probably going through the worst ever patch of a maize shortage not caused by drought or similar calamities, but one caused by poor policies and bad decision making by our government.

At the beginning of the year, under the false pretence of a bumper harvest, our decision makers were falling all over themselves to export maize to a neighbouring country itself undergoing a serious political, economic and social crisis. It appears that the government did not foresee a shortfall in its national maize stocks.

The current food situation in the country where mealie meal prices are skyrocketing is a serious indictment of the Food Reserve Agency which is not only mandated to scour and secure maize stocks in the country, but to release it in times like this. After exporting maize to Zimbabwe, barely six months later it is talking about importing grain at an even higher price than it disposed of its own grain.

But again, the lack of seriousness by the FRA forces peasant farmers in border areas to sell their crop in neighbouring countries with properly functioning grain marketing companies such as those living on the border with Malawi who sell their maize to the Agriculture Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC), and to neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo where there is a ready market for mealie meal.

According to a Michigan State University (MSU) study quoted by the UN’s IRIN news service a series of actions which tipped the food security situation in Zambia to worrying levels. According to the MSU, The country produced less maize in 2008. The Food Reserve Agency (FRA) set a buying price of 45,000 kwacha per tonne (about $260 per tonne) and banned private exports. The "nervousness of the markets" prompted traders to buy at prices higher than the FRA floor price. FRA in turn hiked prices again.

However, the game of ping pong between the government and the Zambia National Farmers Union also exposes a lack of a clear ideology in terms of farming as a business from which farmers are expected to make a profit from their activity. Accusations and counter-accusations of hoarding just show what is lacking in terms of general agricultural policy.

In a liberalized economy such as exists in Zambia, demand and supply dictate prices. As agricultural economists would say, a glut on the market will depress prices while prices of a commodity in shot supply will naturally go up. It is definitely a no-win situation for both the farmers who under pressure to conform to some form of social responsibility by supplying cheap maize, and to the consumer who has to face market forces for the staple.

Is it any wonder then that commercial farmers shun growing maize for other cash crops such as rose flowers, asparagus and other exotic crops which are not even consumed by local Zambians?

……

I first met Kashiwa Bulaya in 1995 when he was deputy permanent secretary at the ministry of health during a trip of then health minister Michael Sata to the Eastern Province where he travelled to tour health institutions there.

At that time, Bulaya’s task was to mobilize reporters who accompanied Sata on the tour. We, the reporters, met Bulaya at the Pamodzi Hotel where we were to spend the night because the flight on a Zambia Flying Doctors Service plane from the Lusaka International Airport was to be quite early in the morning.

When we arrived back from the Eastern Province a day later, he gave us a lift from the airport to our various homes. Incidentally, I was the last one to be dropped in Chilenje South where I lived then. When we got home, I found that my daughter who was three then, was ill. Bulaya offered to give me and my wife a lift to the UTH.

That episode and subsequent encounters showed that Bulaya was a good man who would not hurt a fly, always helpful and very respectful he would almost kneel when talking to you.

Then rumours started flying about his private and official dealings and that is when it dawned that his appearance of a lamb actually masked the fox in him. I am not surprised that he is now a guest of the very government he served at “Hotel Chimbokaila” where he is starting a five year sentence.

Good work there, Mr Max Nkole and your team. There are, however, still other foxes masquerading as lambs out there. Hunt them, please.

3 comments:

MrK said...

Hi Gershom,

In a liberalized economy such as exists in Zambia, demand and supply dictate prices.

But haven't we seen the failure of 'supply and demand' to accurately predict for instance the reduction of lending rates, even as inflation has fallen to single digits? The problem with neoliberal economics, is that there are other factors than supply and demand which dictate prices - such as emotion, perception, the absence of certainty created by for instance credit registries, the absence of collateral from most of the population, the absence of title deeds which would create confidence in not being thrown off the land that is being invested in, etc.

At the same time, if you don't have a government in place that believes in government or governing, or in planning, because 'government is the problem' and which will 'let the market sort it out', we shouldn't be surprised that 'market failure' will both result and remains not dealt with.

On the issue of the food supply, we should have taxed the heck out of the mines and invested in storage capacity for the FRA, so they can build enough food reserves to last Zambia 2 years (at 60 tonnes per month, that would be 1440 tonnes total).

Also, why just maize? Cassava and sorghum both need fewer agricultural inputs and can grow in dryer regions. Would people starve if they had no maize, but had sorghum or cassava to eat?

Then, there is the issue of water. Only 3% of farms have permanent irrigation, while 97% of farms depend on rainfall, limiting them to 1 harvest per year. This is an exention of not investing in infrastructure.

Rural infrastructure - if there is no way to bring crops to market, what is the point? Remote farms could easily be unlocked by building simple roads.

What is needed, is comprehensive agricultural reform, combined with works projects run by the chiefs and by the National Serivice.

So that is the solution, but the question is, will these neoliberal politicians be quick enough on their feet to implement it while there is still time. For the moment, they are still talking about attracting more 'foreign direct investment' and 'attracting tourist'.

Gershom said...

MrK,

Is it possible you can lay your hands on the Maize Ordnance of 1924?
That will unlock the mystery about this maize issue because that ordnance made it mandatory for people to grow maize and abandon other crops as you mention in your response.
In the past, our people used to experience "ifipowe" but they were always triumphant of such challenges. Not any more.
You are bang on these issues.

MrK said...

Hi Gershom,

Is it possible you can lay your hands on the Maize Ordnance of 1924?

I haven't been able to find it, but I have the book Black And White In Southern Zambia. Every single measure take seems to have been to undermine and reduce African productivity in growing maize. Artificially low prices set by a marketing board, etc.

It also highlights the lie of Africans as 'bad farmers' and it's selfserving nature:

"This was, quite obviously, a complete reversal of the argument that Control was in the Africans best interest because it would curb their production, and thus save their land."

That will unlock the mystery about this maize issue because that ordnance made it mandatory for people to grow maize and abandon other crops as you mention in your response. (par. 1, page 208)

That makes sense.

In the past, our people used to experience "ifipowe" but they were always triumphant of such challenges. Not any more. You are bang on these issues.

Maybe there is a need for a marketing campaign - how to cook with cassava and sorghum.