In the premises of Paramount Commodities shop at Mponela Township in Dowa District, some 34 people are lying on the floor, some on sacks, others on bare ground, barely covered and looking like corpses in a massacre scene. It is 11pm on a Friday.
As if they are the attendants of this virtual mortuary, two young men are sitting on the margin of this scene, shoving cooked rice out of a container into their mouths—after which they will find their place among the bodies.
Unlike many others here, the two are not here for the purpose of buying fertiliser. They are ‘standing’ in the queue on behalf of other people who cannot manage this ‘death’ tonight.
These young men earn a living carting people’s goods around Mponela town. But tonight’s is some consultancy work for them, sort of. They have been spending nights here on behalf of beneficiaries of Agriculture Input Programme (AIP) who cannot afford to sleep over to keep their spot in the queue for the next day’s fertiliser sales.
One of the young men, Aubrey, 34, has done this for five nights now.
“Sometimes, I do it for more than one customer in one night. Like tonight, I have three. I keep their place in the queue so they take it up in the morning. Each one pays K2 000 per night,” he told this reporter.
Aubrey is doing honest business, but his preying on the chaos of this programme speaks of what happens when a government initiative supposedly social protectionist in formulation becomes an instrument for dehumanisation of the weak and a profiteering scheme for the strong in its implementation.
AIP is a great idea but its implementation threatens to push deeper into deprivation the very people it is supposed to lift out of poverty, rights activists say.
Gift Trapence, chairperson of the Human Rights Defender Coalition (HRDC), says they have received numerous complaints about the programme and he describes it as “a flop” and humiliating to poor Malawians.
On our visits to Thyolo, Neno, Ntchisi and Dowa districts over the past week, the sight at many sales depots is heart-breaking.
It is 9:30am. The sales point at Nambala 1 at Thyolo Boma is teeming with people, some gathered in small groups expressing their frustration with lack of progress here, others stretching their necks looking at the entrance where some official is calling out names, yet many more resigned to fate and sitting away. The entrance is chock-a-block with people shoving each other but making no headway.
Stellia Chikwanje, 52, cannot survive this physical contest. So she is sitting away, looking well in despair. She has been here since 5am. To get to this depot, her trip involves a K700 kabaza ride from her village beyond Mafisi tea estates to Mangunda Trading Centre along the Limbe-Thyolo Road from where she takes a bus to Thyolo Boma. Today is the fourth day she has come here, arriving at 6am and leaving at 5pm when the shop closes.
“They say its network [hitches],” she tells this reporter about the crowd. And she reveals that if she doesn’t buy the fertiliser today, she won’t come tomorrow because she has ran out of money for transport.
“I haven’t been able to do my business these past three days because I have had to be here. It’s through that business [selling vegetables] that I made the money for the fertiliser,” says Chikwanje.
As this paper revealed this week, of the 85 firms which government contracted to supply the fertiliser, 40 of them had delivered nothing by end of last week, more than a month since President Lazarus Chakwera launched the programme.
And situations like this raise suspicion: Deep inside the treacherous road leading to Neno Parish in Neno, we found a lorry broken down on a bend. It was loaded with hundreds of bags of fertiliser for beneficiaries around Khungulu area in Traditional Authority Mlauli.
Three hours later on our return, we found a rescue vehicle on the scene. Two boys had just started transferring the fertiliser into the rescue truck. There was no security. The time was just before 6pm. It was going to take them well into the night in this bush to transfer all those bags. It was hard to be sure whether all of this fertiliser would get to the beneficiaries.
Spectacles like the one at Nambala 1 are all over. Reports of people spending nights on the queue have come flooding in. Experiences of pain like Chikwanje’s are being told and retold.
To blame the people’s suffering on the fertiliser queue on vendors does not begin to address the more serious problems. In truth, AIP is riddled with serious systemic challenges and white-collar malpractices that are responsible for the torture poor Malawians are facing at sales points.
Inefficiencies in programmes of this nature are man-made, according to a top agricultural economist working with one government institution. He says subsidy programmes in Africa have a habit of becoming grounds for rent-seeking behaviour where certain people, often high-ranking and already rich, scheme to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor. In the end, he says, the inputs are not necessarily cheap.
“The poor spend a lot of time, energy and money to access them. Cost all that. And sometimes they don’t get the inputs. Next year, when hunger hits, it’s these same people that will need food aid. So, in a way, subsidies have become a way of massaging poverty,” he said, opting for anonymity considering his government role.
Trapence echoes this point, blaming the AIP mess on those tasked to manage it. And he is surprised that the authorities are finding it hard to crack the whip.
“This is about life and death of poor Malawians. We are talking about right to food here. There is clear evidence that some people in government are sleeping on the job or deliberately frustrating it and we wonder why they are still being kept in their positions. Why are heads not rolling?” queries Trapence,
President Chakwera himself has threatened and threatened to act. Minister of Agriculture Lobin Lowe and his colleagues have been shutting down cheating selling centres. They have held countless review meetings. They have even been promising dates when everything would improve. But the suffering at sales points remains.
Heads have rolled in a way, one will say. Mid last month, the Malawi Police Service reported that it had arrested 19 people for selling underweight input fertiliser bags and collecting national identity cards from beneficiaries of the programme.
But the heads Trapence wants to see roll are not those of marginal consequence. He wants big heads, because these are the ones that are committing the worst crimes against poor Malawians.
“We have been waiting for someone to be sacked – whether it is the PS, or the minister himself or those technical people who are responsible for this mess,” he tells Weekend Nation.
Trapence says government is not serious to clean up the system and make the programme efficient. He says it is not supposed to be difficult to fire those public officials who are messing up the programme or take away contracts from the suppliers who are not delivering.
“The rains are coming. Soon most roads in rural areas will be impassable. Malawians need to buy the fertiliser now,” he says.
So what if there is no improvement?
“We will hold demonstrations,” warns Trapence. “We will ask the same people that are suffering to make their voice heard on the street and we will mention names of the specific public officers who should be fired.” n
*Charles Mpaka is an award winning journalist and former editor.