Details have emerged that the controversial Ministry of Health ambulances supply deal had the blessings of Cabinet ministers in the former Democratic Progressive Party administration, but technocrats charged with execution apparently frustrated the move.
Paper trail on the ambulances deal shows that in 2018, then minister of Health Atupele Muluzi highlighted the shortage of ambulances and requested special funding for the exercise from his Cabinet colleague Goodall Gondwe, who was minister of Finance.
In a letter reference number DPPD/21 dated January 22 2018, Muluzi requested the Ministry of Finance to provide K4 billion outside the Ministry of Health allocation for the procurement of 66 ambulances.
Gondwe approved Muluzi’s request and further proposed that the number of ambulances be increased to 300.
Gondwe’s response letter dated February 2 2018 under reference number FIN/BD/2/2/9/310 reads in part: “Honourable minister, you may wish to note I totally agree with your suggestion that some resources should be set aside in the 2018/19 budget for procurement of ambulances for our health facilities.
“I am of the view that instead of planning for 66 ambulances, we could be planning for the procurement of 300 ambulances.”
The Nation has established that after Gondwe’s communication, the ministries of Finance and Health received a proposal from a South African company identified as Vision International to supply 300 ambulances to Malawi. The payment plan was staggered over a period of five years to give the Malawi Government some fiscal space.
We have not independently established how the South African firm came to know that Malawi needed 300 ambulances. But sources familiar with the deal claimed there was a syndicate of senior government officials involved.
Vision International was to supply the 300 basic life supporting ambulances at a cost of K32 billion and that government would be paying an average of K6.4 billion annually over five years.
In a memo to Secretary for Health reference number EAD 13/1/2/1 dated June 20 2018, Ben Botolo—who was then Secretary to the Treasury—described the deal as technically and financially viable.
But while seemingly falling for the deal, Botolo feared procurement consequences and stated the same in writing: “I propose that government may consider procuring such type of ambulances.
“However, I would urge your Ministry of Health to procure such vehicles in line with the Procurement and Disposal of Assets Act from which this may be seen as single sourcing and plunge your ministry and government into misprocurement battles.”
Following the advice from Treasury, Ministry of Health advertised for international competitive bidding for the supply of 300 ambulances and three companies emerged successful bidders. They were Vision International, Grand View International and Savenda.
The bidders, at their own cost, were asked to organise inspections of the ambulances.
In view of this, between November and December 2018, a team of about 10 Malawi Government officials travelled from Zambia to the United Kingdom and Dubai to inspect ambulances under the sponsorship of bidders; an act former PPDA acting director Timothy Kalembo described as conflict of interest and promised to investigate.
“Interestingly while there was so much interest to have Vision International given the contract, the inspection team went to South Africa but could not locate the company’s office and could not inspect anything.
“We met at some lodge and a representative from the company gave an excuse that they were not ready for inspection,” confided one official who was in the Malawi Government delegation.
Following the inspection, Ministry of Health settled for Grandview International and PPDA granted a no objection in a letter dated February 15 2019 for the supply of ambulances worth K4 billion, which was the sum set aside in the budget.
In the letter, PPDA clarified that it had withheld its approval for the supply of 300 ambulances because of funds limitation.
But our sources indicate that the choice of Grandview International was to frustrate other interested officials in the deal because Ministry of Health officials allegedly had personal interest in the Zambian firm.