Zambians are hungry for answers following high food prices
By MUBANGA LUCHEMBE
VICE-PRESIDENT Mutale Nalumango, officiating recently at the launch of the Lusaka cleaning and drainage clearing campaign, urged citizens who cannot afford to buy breakfast mealie-meal to consider roller-meal which is more nutritious and costs less.
Apart from the obvious – that the country has backtracked on the progress it had initially made in restoring economic fundamentals due to its much-delayed debt restructuring negotiations – some UPND-aligned commentators would have ordinary Zambians believe that “prices should rise before they can drop.”
Strange as it may sound, these words were previously uttered by Ms Nalumango in response to a question over Zambia’s soaring cost-of-living during one of the weekly sessions of the Vice-President’s question time in Parliament.
As a consequence, “Nalumangonomics” was a word quickly coined by political pundits to describe the disastrous UPND’s socio-economic policies as ordinary Zambians are hungry for answers following high food prices.
All this has happened against the backdrop of volatile fuel prices – which affect production and transport costs of food – and what Agriculture Minister Mtolo Phiri described as “alarmingly mealie-meal illegal exports” to neighbouring countries as many critics accusingly pointed a finger-of-blame at ruthless speculators and brazen maize millers who champion export business.
Indeed, the reasons behind the staple food crisis and the impact this is having on everyday Zambians, in particular, are complex. But this also varies from district to district.
And it is not just the price of mealie-meal that is soaring but those of other essential commodities such as sugar, vegetable oil and bread – many grown by smallholder producers in the country.
Beyond that, over 60 millers have applied for 152, 000 metric tonnes of strategic reserve maize from the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) to benefit from the 250, 000 metric tonnes of maize which it is offloading to millers in a bid to cushion the escalating prices of mealie-meal.
Nevertheless, the devastating impact of soaring food prices cannot be underestimated. While not quite at the levels recorded during the Covid-19 pandemic crisis of 2020, local research findings showed that farmer participation in farming activities and business decreased since the pandemic began.
The proportion reporting decrease in participation in farming activities increased from 47 percent to 58 percent between October 2020 and March 2021.
Similarly, the proportion reporting decrease in participation in business/household enterprises slightly improved from 87 percent to 76 percent although it still remained high.
Availability of labour, key agricultural services and access to markets decreased, while costs of inputs, farm labour and transportation of produce increased.
One of the problems, according to the Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU), is that commodity markets now behave like financial markets with prices rising and falling in response to speculations.
Increasingly there was agreement that spikes in food crops would continue if left entirely to market forces. And so there has been much head-scratching about how to address this.
For ZNFU, the fact that food markets are now closely connected to the speculative activities of financial markets means they should be subjected to the kind of regulation applied to the banking and financial systems.
Agricultural experts have advocated that any new regulatory processes should be accompanied by a three-tiered national grain reserves policy.
In the first instance, this would be the creation of a small, independent physical reserve at the Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit (DMMU) which would be exclusively for emergency response and humanitarian assistance.
There should also be a modest physical reserve at FRA to be shared by wards at a constituency or district level. Finally, they proposed a ‘constituency-based’ reserve at FRA where each constituency through a Constituency Development Fund (CDF) component would commit to funding to a food reserve stock – especially for cooperative-established solar-powered mini-milling plants.
Globally, the World Bank says the market can help – but not without intervention and an integrated agricultural, food security, poverty and climate agenda. Among its calls, is the regular food price monitoring.
There are also calls for national governments to formulate agricultural policies that improve infrastructure for access to markets and result in farmers – even in remote areas – being able to get hold of fertiliser and good seed.
Officials at Amsterdam-based Common Fund for Commodities believe Africa’s many net importing countries could become food self-sufficient given land availability and agro-climatic conditions if the right policies were in place.
One of the most important things, they say, is for high global food prices to reach the farm gate, so incentivising farmers to produce more. Many African governments that once neglected the sector are now investing heavily. This is just as well.
Global research by Oxfam, into how rising food prices perpetuate inequality had found that poor people do not simply accept and cope with the situation. They respond politically by contesting official explanations and criticising their governments for failing to act effectively. Political unrest has been the result and would continue if the right answers cannot be found.
As for Zambia, it is not news that President Hakainde Hichilema is pro-West and is obsessed with the Western liberal economic systems.
Needles to say, his position has not improved the country’s fortunes nor the standard of living of ordinsry citizens. Ultimately, the UPND leader – once revered, loved and venerated as a symbol of hope for the country – is a hard lesson for Zambian leaders in waiting.
For now, President Hichilema’s policies despite being praised by US President Joe Biden and the then-UK leader Boris Johnson have not received the thumbs up from the hunger-stricken citizens that matter most. And if his policies have failed to translate into affordable food prices and a better quality of life for ordinary Zambians then US and UK-showered encomiums are meaningless.
After all, managing power is more difficult than capturing power. Besides, most Zambian leaders ride into office on a popular vote and depart on a stretcher of disappointment and condemnation. Opposition elements and those UPND officials new to power in the country would do well to remember this.