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Mega headache on farms order

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CHIMWAZA—Ultimatum is ill-timed

On Thursday, in a highly-charged tone, President Lazarus Chakwera directed the Ministry of Agriculture to ensure Malawi has at least a mega farm within six months. But the ministry has no money, Treasury turned down their proposal and experts think the initiative is a duplication

While President Lazarus Chakwera has sounded an ultimatum to the Ministry of Agriculture to start establishing mega-farms in Malawi in the next six months, this could otherwise be an empty threat as there is no money for the initiative, it emerges.

Malawi News understands that the Ministry of Agriculture would have to depend entirely on partners to finance the mega farms project, a flagship Tonse Alliance promise which has no allocation in the 2022-23 budget.

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A concept note we have from the ministry which was developed in 2021 indicates that success of the project hinges on several factors such as availability of land and timely availability of financial resources, among others. There is no indication of any movement on this thus far.

In an interview on Wednesday ahead of the President’s order, the ministry’s spokesperson, Gracian Lungu, said Treasury had already promised to link the ministry to potential partners who would finance the project.

A well-placed source within the ministry said there is nothing yet and that for the past two years, mega farms has not been a priority project, hence given little attention.

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“It should not be a surprise that the ministry is relying on partners; the thing is this is not a priority project [for the ministry],” said the source.

Malawi News understands that initially, the ministry developed and pushed a proposal to the Ministry of Finance for possible financing of the project under the government’s Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP).

But Treasury turned it down.

In the concept note, the government planned to establish three farms in three regions covering a total of 10,000 hectares with a total budget of K10 billion.

This is a slight departure from what Vice President Saulos Chilima said that the mega farms would be established in every district.

The mega farms concept aims at establishing large scale production units at one place, each having all necessary supporting resources such as human capital, equipment and infrastructure from land preparation to marketing.

Some of the activities as outlined in the concept note include identification of potential land for establishment of mega farms, processing land acquisition and concessions, sensitisation of mega farm scheme and recruitment of consultants for various construction works.

“The country has vast potential land for establishment of the mega farms which are currently not being owned by any farmer. In an event where the proposed land is within the farming communities, then the government can make arrangements to compensate the concerned farmers or relocate them.

“Currently, Press Agriculture Limited has farms all over the country which are idle and government can go into agreement with the company to have their land be turned into mega farms by the government,” reads the concept note in part.

In an interview earlier, Chilima said the delay in the establishment of the mega farms was due to Covid-19 and that some people who expressed interest to partner the government pulled out.

“I will say two things: One looks like an excuse but it’s a fact. One is Covid. Some of the people that had expressed interest to partner have not been able to show up. Of course, you can have as many virtual meetings as you like but one would want to come and see what is on the ground.

“The second part obviously becomes the financial pressure. I mean the fiscal pressure that we are experiencing. Whichever way, it is thus still on the cards. As you have known, this country still remains agrarian for quite a bit. The MW2063 and its pillar 1; agriculture commercialization remains our focus and in it add a bit of industry and so on.

Agriculture expert Leonard Chimwaza said the ultimatum is ill-timed, arguing the government should have started with having a commission to look at the nitty-gritties of what would constitute a mega farm.

Chimwaza said it would also not be proper to rely on partners as they too have priority areas.

“I was part of the audience when the president announced the ultimatum. Many of us who attended the conference wondered if this is going to materialise because we are just two months old in the 2022/23 financial year…

“Ordinarily, as government, every implementation must follow what is in the budget, so it would be very irrational to a have diversion of funds in this budget because there is this ultimatum. So, resource wise, it’s not also wise and proper to rely on partners because those partners have also priority areas,” he said.

Similarly, Tamani Nkhono Mvula, in an earlier interview, said the idea was generally good but the promise was done without proper research.

Mvula said the concept of the mega farms is not different from the Greenbelt Initiative which is equally facing challenges.

In his statement on Thursday, when he presided over the official opening of the 2022 Malawi Agricultural and Productivity Conference (MAPCC) in Lilongwe, Chakwera said it is annoying that after two years in power, there is nothing to show for the attainment of the highly-touted initiative.

Describing the development as a mark of failure, he said has no more patience to see some of the promises materialize.

“…this is a failure. I no longer have the patience to abide. For this reason, I am giving the Ministry of Agriculture six months to produce results that the eyes of Malawians can see. We cannot go into 2023 with this business-as-usual approach. Not on my watch,” Chakwera said.

He then said the time for producing results, in terms of mega-farms, is now, describing such a move as the right step towards enhancing agriculture productivity which would, with proper commercialization strategies, boost the country’s forex position.

“What I expect is that my next crop inspection tour will include the inspection of one or more mega farms in the making,” Chakwera said.

In the 2022-23 national budget, government allocated K447 billion to the Ministry of Agriculture for activities in agriculture, water development and climate change.

The money is supposed to cater for wages, salaries and operations, including Affordable Inputs Programme, and development projects.

According to the budget statement, some of the projects to be implemented in the agriculture sector Agriculture Commercialization project, Shire Valley Transformation project and Livestock Infrastructure Development.

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