Malawi government has this season lost over K130 million (about $325 000) worth of subsidised fertiliser recovered from alleged theft, but which courts sell for a song, The Nation has established.
The courts’ conduct has not amused the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security and the Malawi Police Service (MPS), which say the Judiciary should either be returning the seized fertiliser to the ministry for redistribution to deserving poor households or sell it at prices closer to current market rates so that government recoups taxpayers’ money.
In separate interviews last week, the ministry and MPS noted that courts sell the impounded fertiliser—tendered in court as evidence—at prices starting from K500 per 50kg bag, a charge meant for Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp) beneficiaries, but which courts apparently extend to anyone with the money as part of evidence disposal.
According to national police spokesperson Rhoda Manjolo, the law-enforcers confiscated 8 658 bags or 432.9 tonnes of fertiliser in the 2012/13 farming season that government bought at commercial prices from various suppliers under Fisp.
While the market value of the impounded fertiliser translates to K136 341 345 if sold at the ruling market price of roughly K13 000 per 50kg bag, government only recovered K4.3 million (about $10 750) since courts, according to police, sell it at K500 per 50kg bag. This leaves around K132 million (about $330 000) down the drain.
The confiscated fertiliser—if it had reached their destinations—would have benefited about 4 329 smallholder farming families.
And based on recent population studies which state that a Malawian household comprises an average of five people, it means that over 21 645 who would have benefitted from better agricultural yields that come with Fisp were marginalised due to the courts’ action.
In the 2012/13 national budget, government planned to buy 150 000 tonnes of fertiliser at a cost of K40 billion (about $100m) for the benefit of 1.5 million poor households, which translated to 7.5 million Malawians out of the country’s 14 million population.
Manjolo said the problem is that presiding magistrates have the prerogative to auction off the evidence to the highest bidder as a way of disposing of materials that are used as evidence in court.
“What I know is that in most cases, the courts sell the fertiliser to the surrounding villagers at the recommended price of K500,” she said, adding that police have no say on the disposal of evidence.
Manjolo said the K136 341 345 worth of fertiliser that has been recovered this year was higher than the previous season’s K17 812 500.
In a separate interview last week, assistant commissioner of police Mlowoka Kayira, who is also deputy head for the office that coordinates Fisp security within police, said the law-enforcers and the Ministry of Agriculture are unhappy with the way courts dispose of the confiscated fertilisers.
Kayira said an interface discussion has been scheduled between police and the Ministry of Agriculture on one hand and the Judiciary on the other where the three parties expect to map out a better mode of disposal of stolen fertilisers.
“We want to ask the Judiciary to be selling the fertiliser at a price close to the market value or re-forward it to the Ministry of Agriculture for redistribution to the beneficiaries,” he said.
Kayira said the current system makes government lose a lot of money as fertiliser that is fetching a higher price on the market is sold at the minimal K500 to people who are not Fisp beneficiaries. He added that thousands of peasant farmers are denied access to subsidised fertiliser as a result.
Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson Sarah Tione said her ministry is aware of the situation, adding that courts have not managed well the disposal of impounded fertiliser.
“The ministry has been engaging the Judiciary to allow for Fisp fertiliser to be brought back into the system and sent back to targeted beneficiaries, and also to speed up the process of judging Fisp cases,” she said.
Tione said speedy trials of Fisp theft cases would help bring back confiscated fertiliser into the system and redistributed before the window of fertiliser application among beneficiaries was closed.
She said the ministry and the courts have agreed on arrangements to return the fertiliser to the ministry.
When asked how much fertiliser was returned to the ministry, Tione did not provide the answers.
But our inquiries have revealed that courts continue to auction the confiscated Fisp fertilisers.
Last Saturday, for example, the Judiciary in Nsanje auctioned off about 700 Fisp bags at K500, resulting in government collecting K350 000 (about $875). Had the market price of K13 000 (about $32.50) been used, the fertiliser would have fetched K9.1 million (about $22 750). But as it is, government lost about K8.7 million (about $21 875) in the Nsanje auction.
The same exercise has also taken place in some other districts, including Chikhwawa, Mulanje and Thyolo this year, according to police and Judiciary sources.
Judiciary spokesperson Joseph Chigona did not respond to our questionnaire sent to his office last week to respond to the concerns and explain how the money from the auctions is managed.