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Private sector participation answer to high maize prices

Felix Tembo
ON THE second and third days of this month, USAID in collaboration with its partners held a conference to discuss some of the interventions needed to develop and grow the agriculture industry especially in the Third World countries like Zambia.
The conference was educative and brought out so many strategies. During lunch of the first day of that conference, I sat with a colleague from Cargill as we discussed what must be done in Zambia to forge ahead with agricultural productivity and agro-financing.
However, what has impressed me this week is the good news I have read in one of the daily newspapers that Cargill has invested over US$2 million to set up a maize milling plant in Chipata.
When I first read the headline, my heart jumped and had I opened my mouth, it would have landed in my hands.
The reason is that this government made some positive pronouncements some two years ago that it was going to invest in milling plants in each and every district across the country.
This was made by a minister in the famous industrial cluster sermon in Parliament.
There was nothing wrong with that statement, but when you critically analyse the implications, this was taking us back to the times of INDECO.
While the government may have meant well for the farmers in the country, in my view it was like taking two steps forward and three backwards.
The reason is that the government is mostly not efficient in running such profit-based businesses.
What would have happened or what is mostly likely to happen is that it will employ people unnecessarily and whatever will be realised will go into overhead costs and other non-productive activities.
Secondly, just think of over 73 milling plants including one established at Bwalya Mponda in the heart of Lake Bangweulu where the main commodity is fish.
The idea was excellent but the way the government wants to execute it is not sustainable in my opinion.
The government should only engage private sector players like Cargill and entice them to establish plants such as what it has done in Chipata.
I don’t think we need more than two to three states-of-the-art milling plants in Eastern Province; let investments grow with productivity.
The other negative impact government investment into maize value addition has on the economy is that it will be defeating the purpose of crop diversification.
Just imagine the value of the investment that will go into the establishment of over 73 milling plants regardless of the time frame.
This will affect other value chains like soya, cashew nuts, groundnuts, fish and livestock.
The establishment of these plants has to come with good predictable policies with investments into public infrastructure like roads, water transport, communication and energy.
The rest will be history and in no time, we will see all these heavy duty vehicles causing congestion on Cairo road heading to Mtenguleni, Chadiza, Lundazi to mop up the grain and lint in that part of the country.
We need to see more of such investments as the Cargill maize plant being established in other rural parts of the country like Musungu in Luapula Province, Mbanga in Lukulu and many other areas.
I know Cargill has a very strong base in Eastern Province and this is a sign indeed that they have positioned themselves to stay in that part of the country. We are yet to see other partners emulating Cargill.
If we have much of such investments in the rural areas, I can assure every Zambian that productivity will improve because the plant will demand for more raw materials.
I know other partners like MRI Syngenta, Greenbelt and others that offer extension services besides agricultural inputs have positioned themselves by already establishing depots in that province.
This investment will make them work harder to increase production.
The onus is now on us farmers to produce more grain to feed into the milling plant so that it is not a white elephant.

The author is an agri-business practitioner.