Friday, March 22, 2013

Policing our mealie-meal

Policing our mealie-meal
By The Post
Fri 22 Mar. 2013, 14:00 CAT

Jamas Milling managing director John Coutlis blames the current shortage of mealie-meal on weak monitoring mechanisms by law enforcement agencies. Coutlis accuses law enforcement agencies of allowing rampant smuggling of mealie-meal to neighbouring countries.

True as it may be that the current shortage of mealie-meal is caused by illegal exports to some neighbouring countries, law enforcement agencies are not in a position to stop it. This is not a new problem. This problem has been there from the 1980s. All sorts of check-points were put along our borders to try and stop the smuggling of mealie-meal. Even songs were sung to discredit smugglers of mealie-meal. But the smuggling continued.

We don't think the demand for Zambian mealie-meal in our neighbouring countries is in itself a bad thing. It does offer an opportunity to our farmers and millers to increase their market. There is a bigger problem than this: Zambian maize and mealie-meal are highly subsidised. We are subsidising both production and consumption. We have subsidised fertilisers and other inputs. And the maize that is bought by our millers is sold to them at a subsidised rate.

This, in itself, means that Zambia is subsidising the consumption of maize meal in the neighbouring countries. For a very long time, the Katanga Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo has been dependent on Zambian maize and mealie-meal. There are also substantial amounts of mealie-meal that go to Angola. Our subsidised fertilisers get to Malawi and other neighbouring countries.

In our planning, there is no provision for subsidising our neighbours. We are planning our maize stocks and mealie-meal supply on the basis of our population without taking into account Katanga and eastern Angola. Any increase in demand across our borders, or even within our country itself, can cause serious shortages of mealie-meal.

But policing our borders is not the solution. Even if we wanted to, we have a very long border with our neighbouring countries which is not possible for us to police. The solution to this problem lies far beyond law enforcement. It is an economic problem that needs economic solutions. At the rate we are subsidising our maize and mealie-meal, it doesn't make economic sense for the Katangese and others to engage in production of maize. Why waste their time and money when they can get the mealie-meal cheaply from Zambia? It doesn't matter whether the mealie-meal is smuggled to them or not. What matters to them is having the mealie-meal.

The solution lies in making the cost of producing maize and the prices of our mealie-meal economic and competitive. This demands, among other things, the removal of subsidies from maize production and mealie-meal consumption. But is this possible in our current situation? Our answer is a categorical no. We are not in a position right now to arbitrarily remove maize and mealie-meal subsidies.

To do so will first require us meeting certain prerequisites. It demands crop and foodstuffs diversification. We need to wean off our people from excessive dependence on maize meal. When this is done, we can then start reducing or totally removing subsidies from maize production and mealie meal consumption. When this is done, those who engage in maize and mealie meal production will have the right to sell their maize at the market price to the Democratic Republic of Congo and other neighbouring countries. Exporting subsidised mealie-meal doesn't make economic or financial sense when the whole issue is viewed from the interests of the nation as a whole. It may make sense and appear to be very profitable at an individual trader level, but the nation is losing out.

We love our neighbours but we don't think we have the capacity to feed them every year with subsidised mealie-meal. Some of them are actually very rich countries with more resources than ourselves. Why should we subsidise their mealie-meal consumption? One can sympathise with fertilisers being smuggled into Malawi because that country is relatively poorer than us but with a population that is equal to ours to feed. The smuggling of fertilisers into Malawi may be out of necessity or need. But the same cannot be said about the smuggling of mealie-meal into Katanga or eastern Angola.

Bold decisions will need to be taken over this issue. We have to introduce our people to other foodstuffs that are available in our country and are cheaper to produce. Let's teach our people to start looking positively at rice consumption. It is much easier and cheaper to feed a large population on rice. If Asia was as dependent on maize meal as we are, many of the citizens of that region would be dying from hunger every year. It is much cheaper to produce rice than maize. Rice doesn't need fertilisers and other expensive inputs that maize needs. And every region of our country has the capacity to produce enough rice to feed its inhabitants and have a surplus for export. Probably in that way, our neighbours may also learn to eat rice and in that way create a market for our rice growers.

We also have crops like cassava, millet, sorghum, sweet potatoes and so on and so forth that our people can turn to and reduce their dependence on maize meal.

But the movement away from maize will not be spontaneous, it has to be a guided one. In the first place, our people's movement to maize meal was not spontaneous, it was guided. This country has not always been dependent on maize meal. Maize meal is something that has been foisted upon our people by the commercial farmers who accompanied the mining activities on the Copperbelt.

There is a huge market for maize in our region and in the world. Let us exploit that market by producing maize in the manner that is commercially and financially viable. Let us come up with a system that will help us phase out subsidies to maize production and consumption. We understand the political sensitivities that are tied to mealie-meal. And already, there are some political vultures that are without shame, trying to make political capital out of the mealie-meal shortages that some of our towns have been experiencing. Politics will always be there around mealie-meal if it remains the sole staple food for our people.

And this should always be borne in mind when dealing with mealie-meal. The changes that we are advocating should take these political realities into account.

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