On a number of occasions trade officials have tried to restrict certain imports using various tools. Such tools have included bans or import licenses. Treasury has at times put in place some punitive tariffs to discourage such products. The rationale always remain, we can ably produce most of these products at home, and save much needed foreign exchange.
For starters, our shops, mainly supermarkets will stock potatoes, tomatoes, various fruits, fish and meat products like chicken and beef imported from neighbouring countries. There is also the tooth pick and various spices that are imported into the country. Now consider the fact the root of our economy is farming, and it accounts for a major component of GDP. Many of us do agree that certain products are indeed not necessary to be imported into the country. Why on earth must one hit a supermarket to buy a pumpkin or tomato that has travelled thousands of kilometres? It simply has a huge carbon foot print, and lost its freshness. But why are we lazy to grow them ourselves at a commercial scale? You can’t always blame the importer. Simply supply those products to him or her at similar quality.
In fact we can’t stop imports and international merchanting. By joining various organisations such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the Common Market for Southern and Eastern Africa (Comesa) we committed to free trade. As a matter of fact, our resolve to stop such imports using tariffs defeats the very purpose of free trade that we committed to. In all earnest we have had an undue to export to European and US markets under the EBA and Agoa initiatives, not enjoyed by other countries at similar levels of development. After all we are a democracy, or supposedly one, and in earnest, freedoms extend to economic rights to trade freely. No one should stop any person to buy whatever they want from anywhere as long as it is not dangerous goods, narcotics or weapons as prescribed by relevant regulation.
Are locally produced products of poor quality to warrant certain unnecessary imports? Some boutique style resort on one of the islands in this country boasts of using beef products from South Africa citing low quality products in the country. In some expatriate communities in Blantyre city, I was amazed at how they avoided purchases of foreign beef, instead opting for locally produced products, considered superior in quality. From such examples one would infer that the quality of certain imports is not superior to local produce. So what’s the deal?
Getting to the fact we are an agro-based country, and the reality is, we continue to import products available locally. While it is easy to exhibit a normal nationalistic sentiment, the reality is that we have left farming to the poorest of the country. Much of agricultural activities is left to people that cannot afford a bag of fertiliser and have to rely on the philanthropy of a government farm input subsidy awash with corruption. Their productive activities are fragmented and very small to meet the needs of a city supermarket. If only it was done in an organised manner at a large scale.
The cost of capital remains very high and don’t expect small-scale farmers to supply most of the products. They simply do not have capacity and imports will continue, so will be the cheap talk about imports. I think we have left farming to a wrong group or have never sought to empower them, if not tied peasants to bondage of a 50kg bag of fertiliser for the sake of a next election. It will take entrepreneurs that can organise themselves, work with farmers in some kind of organisational setup and convince major retailers that they can supply similar products of good quality.
Fact is those of us that can ably farm are not doing it and we have left the villager to do the rest.