If the matter was not so serious, I would have laughed my lungs out at the silliness of one Nasinuku Saukila, the chief executive officer of the National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA).
But this is a deadly—literally—serious issue. People are dying of hunger. Some perished recently after eating poisonous tubers in desperation for something to fill their stomachs with.
A woman was shot last week in the scramble for maize. A few days ago, in Chiradzulu and Lilongwe, arguments over maize turned violent, leaving some people injured and, yes, over maize.
So, no, as potentially hilarious as Saukira’s utterances to the parliamentary committee on Budget and Finance were for my comical relief. I am finding myself livid with how a parastatal CEO could transfer his own efficiencies and NFRA’s history of botching procurements, to maize suppliers.
“Suppliers have let us down,” declared Saukira to the committee when the parliamentary oversight body took him to task on why, despite sitting on some K12 billion maize war chest—K10 billion from this year’s budget allocation and K2 billion carryover from the last financial year—he has only absorbed K1 billion in buying just 770 tonnes.
If Saukira happens to have selective amnesia, let me remind him of how his agency’s decision and the treatment of maize traders and smallholder farmers back in 2017 when the country had a bumper yield of 3.2 million metric tonnes, may have led to maize sellers refusing to do business with NFRA.
Government had released K16 billion for NFRA and Admarc to buy maize from local traders and smallholder farmers. Of that amount, K11 billion went to Admarc while Saukira’s organisation was flush with K5 billion, which came from the African Development Bank (AfDB).
Apart from the AfDB cash, NFRA would also later get an extra K10 billion from the national budget in the 2017/2018 financial year. What happened after the maize purchase announcement was a chain of ineptitude that is haunting the agency today and making innocent people suffer from hunger.
The agency invited bids and even opened the tenders for the purchase of at least 80 000 tonnes of maize.
But two days after the agency told the parliamentary committee on Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises that it was about to award tenders to successful bidders, NFRA cancelled the whole process.
Instead, the agency opted for free-for-all sales in which anyone could just walk to wherever NFRA had opened a market to sell maize.
The agency—taking advantage of the high maize supplies that made local traders and smallholder farmers desperate to sell their grain—also unilaterally cut the offer price from a government recommended K170 per kg to K130.
What followed was NFRA’s well-organised chaos, with people sleeping at the agency’s markets for days as they waited on long queues to sell their grain. That is exactly what folks at NFRA wanted—orchestrated chaos to exploit.
Within weeks, complaints emerged from traders and farmers that their maize was being ignored in favour of grain brought in by well-connected people.
Actually, the Farmers Union of Malawi (FUM) came in to formally accuse NFRA of allowing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) cadres and sympathisers to jump the queue and sell their maize to the agency at the expense of powerless and vulnerable people. Even protests from the parliamentary committee on Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises did not move the agency to end its unfair practices.
The biggest joke of it all was that one of the buying points that NFRA rented belonged to a well-known backer of DPP who runs a large agro-business corporation that also had tonnes and tonnes of maize to sell to the agency.
Stories were being told of how some desperate farmers and traders ended up selling their maize to these politically connected folks at rock bottom prices while on the long queue and watch the connected middlemen cash in larger cheques minutes later as the local versions of plebeians dejectedly sauntered home with a fraction of what they deserved.
Now today—when maize is not so plenty and the small trader and the smallholder farmer is not so willing to sell to an agency that treated them like fourth rate citizens in their own country three years ago when they were weak and desperate—one Saukira should blame them for not rushing to him with the maize just because the tables have turned and it is NFRA that is desperate?
Someone really has to teach NFRA and Saukira kuti azikhala bwino ndi anthu. The sad part is that with the strategic grain reserves almost empty on account of those with maize refusing to do business with the agency, innocent people are starving.
If NFRA and Saukira have a conscious at all, what is happening today—the desperate hunts for maize by the poorest of the people; the heartbreaks when the return empty handed; the hunger-linked deaths and the maize-connected violence—should be haunted by it all.