A multi-million kwacha horticulture produce processing and marketing facility in Lilongwe has turned into a white elephant as the Ministry of Agriculture is failing to operationalise it five years after completion, Nation on Sunday has learnt.
Located in Kanengo, the capital city’s hub of manufacturing industry, the structure’s construction started in 2011 as part of a five-year $23 million (about K18 billion) Africa Development Bank (AfDB)-funded Agriculture Infrastructure Support Project (AISP) initiative.
In an interview on Wednesday, Cosmos Luwanda, who was AISP national project coordinator, said the aim of the facility, which was to be named Lilongwe Horticulture Market Centre, was to store, process and market perishable farm produce.
He said: “The plan was to have a manager, cold rooms and cooling vans to safely keep and transport fruits and vegetables such as green pepper and tomatoes for sale both domestically and abroad, with the manager coordinating the deals.
“The facility was supposed to be handed over to the horticulture association which, at that time, was not functional.”
Luwanda, who estimated construction costs at K500 million, suspected the facility has not been operationalised yet because it was not fully equipped, a development that left government with a burden of raising funds as the project had ran out of funds.
He said: “The project was approved in 2009 but it took some time before it started. By the time it started in 2011, it coincided with the significant depreciation of kwacha which spurred the cost of products and services. It meant we stretched our budget.”
According to an overview of the initiative, which was handed over to the Ministry of Agriculture in 2016, the project was aimed at enhancing agricultural productivity and strengthening the country’s overall food security through increased irrigation.
In a report published in December 2017 on its website www.afdb.org, which confirms the completion of the project, AfDB states that it hoped that the structures will be put to good use as soon as possible.
Reads the report in part: “The project successfully completed the construction of the market depot meant to be the outlet for agricultural produce from the developed irrigation schemes.
“The quality of works was very good. However, the depot was not yet operational during the mission because government was in its final stages of recruiting a manager.”
The facility’s main building is a two-storey compound with two extensions comprising kiosks and storerooms, among other components.
When Nation on Sunday visited the facility on Tuesday, signs of abandonment were written all over, with the surroundings covered by bushes and a long stretch of the fence had collapsed, exposing it to vandalism and encroachment.
There were no guards to keep the facility secure and some opportunists found their way into the facility. Close to an outside water tap, a man was seen taking a bath while another drew water in anticipation for his turn. All this wastage will be on government’s bill.
Inside the building, part of the ceiling was falling off and some rooms were not locked. In one of them lay a heap of waste and in another a bag of sweet potatoes, a sign that some vendors have turned it into a rent-free warehouse.
It is nastier in the ablution block, where a bathroom is as dirty as a waste pit. The toilet, despite its stinky state, still shows flashes of modernity reflecting the colourful dreams its planners had.
However, those dreams are fast turning into a nightmare for the structures which, though dressed in shiny apple green paint, are transitioning into a white elephant.
Meanwhile, a horticulture expert from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar) Vincent Mgoli Mwale has said if the facility were operational, it would have eased some key challenges in the horticulture industry such as huge post-harvest losses as well as poor prices and market linkages.
In an interview yesterday, the senior lecturer and dean of the faculty of agriculture at Luanar said operationalising the facility would enhance the country’s horticulture industry.
He said: “This facility, if fully operationised, will increase structural marketing of horticulture crops. Farmers will be able to bring their produce to the formal market and bargain for better prices as a unit.
“It will also enhance quality of horticultural crops since producers will be required to supply top notch produce that will fetch better prices.”
Mwale added that the facility would also help farmers to identify potential bulk buyers, including international buyers, thereby increasing export products.
On his part, Farmers Union of Malawi chief executive officer Jacob Nyirongo said failure to operationalise the facility was costing the economy.
“What we need to maximise horticulture potential is a big storage facility in Lilongwe and satellite centres in the districts where produce can be assembled and collected in cold vans to the main storage facility.
“In the absence of such facilities, post harvest losses will continue to be huge and that is a big cost on the farmer and at aggregate level, a big loss for the economy,” he said.
Horticulture Corporative Union of Malawi (HCUM) general manager Gibson Kauta said farmers are disappointed that the facility is not functional as they hoped it would help them to earn more from their products.
“Horticulture products are highly perishable. We need to sell them instantly. We cannot be successful as smallholder farmers when almost 70 percent of our products are lost due to poor storage,” he said in an interview Friday.
Kauta added that farmers have been failing to export their products because of lack of storage facilities.
“There are some products we produce which are on demand outside the country. However, we cannot export them because we do not have capacity, but the AfDB project would have taken care of that,” he said.
The Ministry of Agriculture has not respond to our questionnaire for the past two months despite several reminders.
However, a source in the ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the ministry was planning to privatise the facility with a bid seeking interested parties set to be released soon.
AfDB approved the five-year AISP grant in 2009, but its full roll-out was effected two years later in the targeted Salima, Blantyre and Shire Valley Agricultural Development Divisions and administrative districts of Nkhotakota, Neno, Chikwawa and Nsanje.
It targeted an estimated 10 000 smallholder farmers with infrastructure development, capacity building, project management and coordination, among other key components.
The capacity building component involved mobilisation and sensitisation of farmers, training 3 350 farmers, 45 government staff as well as the recruitment of service providers to promote marketing by smallholder farmers, according to a AfDB funds approval statement issued on September 10 2009.