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Banking on rotten eggs

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It, sometimes, pays to hope for the worst while expecting the best.

That way, one can never be taken by surprise when hope tumbles into the ruined cross that is hopelessness.

This is because, in the heart of the mind, one did not build castles in the air.

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This, Dear Pain, is the panacea of pain.

When, instead of bad things, success is registered, fine and well. It is treated as a bonus.

Maybe the government had this in mind when it established the National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA), which comes to our rescue in times of emergencies.

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When natural calamity strikes Malawi, so much so that we do not have food, NFRA vomits some food from its belly, namely the national silos, and casts it into the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (Dodma) net or disaster responsible bodies established for that purpose. That is, in case the government decides to establish more disaster agencies.

Of course, Dodma and whoever gets food stocks from NFRA pays for it, for the authority does not get the food from trees but, instead, buys it from smallholder farmers and other sellers.

By lining NFRA’s pockets with cash, the government does not throw money—taxpayers’ money, for that matter— down the drain; far from it. It, instead, invests in the future.

It is called strategic planning. No one wants to be accused of planning to fail.

That said, I can sense that the current administration is planning to fail, literally.

Why? It has starved NFRA of funding for two fiscal years. What the government is doing is refusing to invest in the future; instead, it is willing to invest in hope.

It is hoping that, somehow, Malawi will not fall on bad times, food security-wise.

The sheer folly of sticking to this line of thinking is that the government is banking on old projections that have been overtaken by time. It is counting on November 2021 estimates that are no longer reliable.

In November last year, the government announced that we would have a bumper harvest of maize this year.

Even an analysis by Famine Early Warning Systems Network indicated that Malawi would receive average rainfall between the October 2021 and March 2022 season, with potential for above-average rainfall which would facilitate a normal agricultural production season.

“Given the current rainfall forecast and expectations for access to subsidised inputs for poorer households, above-average 2021-22 production of maize and other staples is expected, representing the third consecutive year of above-average production.

“As a result, food and income access from own crops and crop sales in the 2022 marketing year (April to June) is expected to be above average,” the report reads.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture’s food balance sheet of carry overstock for the 2021- 22 consumption season, Malawi was supposed to have a 1,356,000 metric tonnes maize surplus.

However, we all know what happened when Tropical Storm Ana struck on January 24 this year. Some livestock and crops were washed away.

Famine Early Warning Systems Network itself indicated last month that some regions of the country have suffered a battering, in terms of crop yield, which will likely affect the quantity of this year’s produce.

One would, therefore, have hoped that the government would be on top of its game by giving NFRA some funds for maize purchase so that, on a day when the sun’s face is hidden from us, we may have something to fall back on.

Sadly, that is not happening.

Instead, the government is busy pretending that everything is well, food security-wise, in the country. That is why it donated some tonnes of food stuffs to Mozambique recently. As far as it is concerned, all is well.

But, then, all can be well only if it ends well. The end is not here yet and, yet, the government is jumping the gun.

In jumping the gun, it is overlooking NFRA’s importance in times of food shortfalls.

That is why, even though the Treasury has, in the 2022- 23 National Budget, set aside K12 billion for the purchase of the grain, which was initially meant to be shared between Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (Admarc) and NFRA, the latter has been sidelined.

Of course, Ministry of Agriculture officials have said they got a directive from Parliament not to give money to the agency for the purchase of maize.

“It is the Agriculture Committee [of Parliament] that made the recommendation that the task of buying maize should be solely in the hands of Admarc and, after they are done with buying [the commodity], the maize should be sent to NFRA for storage. They argued that the role of NFRA was to store maize but not getting involved in purchasing maize,” the ministry’s spokesperson Gracian Lungu is quoted as saying.

NFRA Board Chairperson Dennis Kalekeni corroborated the ministry’s sentiments.

He said, since last year, NFRA had not received any allocation for the purchase of maize. He said, if it gets an allocation, the agency would buy grain from small-scale farmers who have formed cooperatives.

“The money for the purchase of maize does not come directly to us. It goes to the ministry. It is up to the ministry to decide how much money to give to NFRA. But, as you are aware, last year we got nothing for maize purchase; so, we are not certain if, this year, we will receive anything,” Kalekeni said.

Unfortunately, Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture Vice Chairperson Ulemu Chilapondwa has pushed the blame back to the Executive, saying the committee only plays an oversight role but does not tell the government how to use allocations.

In the end, NFRA will continue to watch maize stocks getting depleted without replenishing them, but it is the ordinary Malawian who will pay a heavy price. Should there be food shortages, the ordinary man and woman will have nothing to fall back on while senior government officials will be competing to throw crumbs of pizza at their fat dogs.

This, Dear Pain, is the pinnacle of insensitivity.

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