The more things change the more they remain the same

THE continuing revelations of misdeeds in the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) and the dismissal of David Matongo, an erstwhile Member of Parliament for Pemba, from his post as chief executive officer brings to mind the old saying that “The more things change the more they remain the same”.

Many seminars, workshops and conferences have been held and are planned in Zambia to deal with issues affecting agriculture and its important role in the economic and social development of our country.

We should still be mindful of what the former prime minister of Singapore said about Zambia following his visit to this country in 1979. He said that he was very impressed with the country, the friendliness of its people, the climate and the abundant natural resources it had.

It has to be remembered that at independence in October 1964, Zambia’s GDP was higher than most countries at that stage, including South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore itself, to mention a few.

The Prime Minister pointed out that there were opportunities for the country to make progress and that it was essential to reduce the talking and politicking which consumed so much of the time and leads to lost opportunities.

It has become necessary to revisit the FRA situation, as the previous article (on FRA) appears to have been read and “noted” as the Zambian normal reaction always is.

There was a meeting held during the first few days of September to bring together “in the region of 150 to 200 delegates from 14 countries and host a technology and solutions display area in Lusaka.”

The statement issued by the organisers pointed out that to the greatest potential for increasing agricultural production in the Southern African region, if not the whole continent, lay in Zambia.

Jervis Zimba, the president of the Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU), has added his voice to confirm that “Zambia holds the majority of the unexploited fresh waters in Southern Africa and the potential
for agribusiness development opportunities are further fuelled by the counters democratic policies, liberalised markets and sustained macro- economic growth for decades”.

We can tell why this country is a leader in talking (but not doing much practical work on or) about production. We can show that the reference to democratic policies and liberalised workers are a total eyewash as neither of these can be said to have positively added toagricultural production.

Just as it can be pointed out that the so-called sustained macro–economic growth has been difficult to discern. Much of theresponsibility for the failure to show sustained macro–economic growth can be laid at the door of the ZNFU, because it has looked only to the interests of the commercial farmers.

This is evidenced by the statement on what the meeting will do. It says “The event looks to bring more small-scale farmers into the commercial farming net and provide business opportunities to investors and traders in the region and also expose Zambian farmers to export markets.”

One can see why the FRA established with much fanfare as a success or to NAMBOARD continues to be bedeviled by the many failures it has encountered.

The farmer (Canadian, South African, European, Austrilian or even one in the USA and Zambia) should not be bothered about the export markets. Nobody imports wheat, beef, poultry or mutton from an individual farmer from the countries where these products come from.
There are organisations well–versed in export procedures, including the requirements of veterinary, phytosanitary or other technical regulations. To expect an individual farmer to deal with these issues is unreasonable, even if we include tea, coffee or groundnuts exports.

It is, therefore, doubtful if the conference on the two-day Agri-business congress will get this country much further forward apart from those who will take in Forex and exchange business cards.

Let us get back to the experiences of the FRA and the expectations from it since it its inauguration. Following the demise (or killing) of NAMBOARD and the establishment of the FRA as the new vision for ensuring food security for the nation and bringing in the prosperity for the former – at every stage of development – the
agency started in typical Zambian fashion appointment of the big shots, palatial offices, big cars and then looking for money to do its business.

The FRA was expected to quickly establish its benchmarks: Arrange systems for the collection and paying for the production at the farmers’ convenient point. The purchasing (or marketing) season was supposed to be announced by the Agency with its people and necessary equipment, materials (labels, sealing items), its staff or appointed
agents ready with the money to pay the farmer.

This required a business plan to be produced for the seasons when produce would be bought and brought in. The plan also was to include such extraneous but necessary needs as improved road network (feeder and farm roads), transport vehicles, including scotch carts and storage sheds.

The plan was to be premised on the basis that after a few years, FRA would be financially independent so far as its purchasing needs were concerned, that is to say, the produce to be bought as part of the food reserve obligation, the quantities, prices, transporting and storage of the same and for what period, were to be settled a long
while before the marketing season began.

The pronouncement against subsidies in agriculture should by now not be raised or considered as valid because these subsidies are supposed to be pre-production. ((The reason the European Common Agricultural
Policy has continued to be a source of acrimony within the European Union is because of lack of agreement on how and when to pay subsidies, not their abolition).

To continue: Because of the wrong procedures adopted every time these bodies are created and administered, there is always some problem.This phenomenon has appeared every time in the National Airports Corporation, Citizens Economic Empowerment Commission and the Zambia Development Agency, Programme Against Malnutrition, the Farm Input Support Programme etc. and the FRA itself.

Those who know how to go about establishing these bodies do not get heard, or their views are ignored. Those who do not have a complete command of the essentials talk loudest and they get heard.

The FRA got itself entangled in the Carlington maize import scheme. Names were bandied about, some allegations of financial misdeeds were made even by the Auditor-General.

Thereafter, there has been a succession of CEOs, some with very doubtful credentials right up to the time David Matongo came on the scene after his parliamentary stint. On paper and on his previous
track record before entering parliament, David Matongo had impressive attributes.

The board which has always suffered from area of conflict of interest since its establishment was this time expected to give support to Matongo if he mapped out a practical programme which was to ensure
produce was brought in, finances were adequate to pay the farmers timely and to do the normal activities such organisations handle.

The question of uncollected produce (over a number of years), complaints by farmers not paid after parting with their crops, lack of money to pay when the season had begun, shortages of packing materials, weighing equipment and storage and many ills which form part of the day-to-day existence of the FRA, to which were added the control and accounting for stock, the use of bank accounts by villagers without dealing with the unhelpful attitudes of the
commercial banks in Zambia, failure to liaise with the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives and many other inexplicable acts by the CEO, dumbfounded, especially those who knew David Matongo’s
capabilities. So what went wrong this time?

The importance of the FRA in Zambia cannot be over-emphasised. It is not much point merely looking for a successor to David Matongo. No statement was issued either by Matongo himself or additional to the mere letter from the chairperson Guy Robinson terminating Matongo’s appointment.

Whilst there may be need for digging into what led to Matongo’s sudden departure, there is a far more important need: Develop or revise the mission and vision of the FRA before appointing a successor.

There is no need to bring an advisor from outside – including the World Bank or FAO or even IFAD – there are plenty of people who can help honourable Chenda, Hon Sichinga and Hon Chikwanda to get a new
and proper foundation for the FRA.

Agriculture is a sector in which there should be no fear of unemployment by those who are in it and equally it is the sector (broadly defined) which has unlimited opportunities to sustain notonly the people but the nation itself.

As mentioned earlier, with the resources Zambia has its “potential to play a key role in enhancing agricultural production capability not only in Southern Africa but in the African continent cannot be
doubted.”

Let us not forget Lee Kuan Hew’s observations and get our Food Reserve Agency on its feet so as to reach the objectives imbedded in its mission and vision. –

The Logician

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