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Solution for rural economy

With the daily scorching sun turning maize across the country into onion and army worms going on rampage, showing no mercy to the crop, President Peter Mutharika is at liberty to, for once, turn himself into a prophet.

This is in view of the claims from the government that perhaps the President’s ‘wise’ decision to effect an export ban on maize last year to save it for a rainy day was not misguided after all in the face of what is likely to be a year of hunger.

But the question the President should answer is, in whose hands is this maize and what will it cost Malawians to have access to it this coming season?

The President should also acknowledge that, much as the ban meant that maize remained in the country, the producer, the rural farmer, did not benefit anything from it for the simple reason that the market for maize and legumes is not structured like that of tobacco.

Rich traders take advantage of the gap to exploit farmers. Simply put, the ban the President wants to claim credit for did not benefit farmers then and will not benefit them in the coming months when hunger starts to bite as they will have no money with which to buy the maize at the exorbitant price from the rich buyers who stole it from them last year.

We are slowly easing into election gear as elections are just 15 months away and, if I had my wish, it would be that competing parties should put the economy as the centre piece of their campaigns and not the usual circus of going after foolish personal attacks.

I have said before and I will say it again for the umpteenth time; The rural economy has completely crumbled.

There is unprecedented chaos in the growing and selling of tobacco, with buyers also becoming growers and slowly trying to abandon the auction system that has served this country so well.

Coupled with the above is the anti-smoking lobby that has made the crop an endangered one as human beings, through science, refine their behaviour to find ways of living long through healthy habits that preclude smoking. The result of all this is that the rural  armer’s poverty has gotten worse for the past 20 years. Yet this is also a voter and he is found throughout the country, from Nkhotakota to Mchinji and Nsanje to Chitipa.

I thought this is an individual in dire straits and he or she is the one the candidates must be addressing, not just for his or her own sake, but, for the future of the country as well.

For the past 70 years, starting in the colonial times, tobacco has served the forex needs of this country.

This was the reason the colonial government made sure its market is well structured and that it is sold through the Auction Floors in Lilongwe.

The MCP government under the founding president, the late Hastings Kamuzu Banda, perfected the system and brought in other players such as regulator Tobacco Control Commission.

The crop thrived and the farmer and the country were rewarded abundantly, raking in millions in forex all these years.

Today, what we get from tobacco is only $300 million per year, which is just enough for fuel imports and it is steadily going down by each year.

The danger is that one day, tobacco, just like the energy sector, will completely give in and the signs are there. Sadly, the solution is right in our face but none of our politicians wants to touch and implement it in the most fundamental way.

It lies in promoting other crops such as legumes by introducing a structured market for them, something we did with tobacco 70 years ago.

In the past, the world knew Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa as a backward country only known for ravaging hunger and disease. It sent the worst pictures of malnourished children to the world, even forcing all top musicians in America to do songs in their aid.

But today, go to Ethiopia and it is a country on the move.

They are demolishing old shacks everywhere and putting up skyscrapers.

The country even has a modern train network that zigzags its capital city, Addis Baba. They have a modern profitable airline that even donates some planes to us.

One thing they have got right is their agriculture. They have done this by establishing a mandated system of marketing all crops, including legumes, sold through Ethiopia Commodity Exchange.

The result is that the legumes have been able to bring to the table $1.5 billion in foreign exchange earnings. Is this not enough to run Malawi?

It is not that our leaders do not know what magic such a mandated market can do to the farmer. They do but the problem is that there are strong and powerful lobby companies that buy these crops from farmers everywhere in the country for a song and export them abroad to make a killing.

These have lobbied so hard to our leaders that they have left Admarc to die a natural death, willfully.

All pleas and attempts to establish a mandated legumes market are falling on deaf ears.

Yet this is a ready solution to resuscitate the rural economy—a strategy for any politician who wants to make a difference.

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