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July 05, 2010

ZImbabwe's maize farmers disgruntled by low prices

by Kuda Bwititi

Disillusionment is settling in on most farmers in Zimbabwe who specialise in growing maize. It is increasingly dawning on such farmers that growing the country's staple crop has now become a loss-making venture.

Before the start of the grain-marketing season, it was announced that farmers would be paid US$325 for a tonne of maize at all the country’s Grain Marketing Board (GMB) depots.

Although most farmers had called for a price of US$400 a tonne, they were generally pleased with this new price, as it was higher than the price of US$265 that was offered by GMB last season.

Many farmers made tentative plans based on the new producer price, believing that come marketing season, everything would be rosy and they would smile all the way to the bank. They also believed that this new price would enable them to make improvements on the farms so that they could constantly increase production on the fields.

Three months on, the marketing season is at its peak but farmers who harvested grain have no smiles but instead are under severe agony. They were left baffled in May after GMB said it had reverted to last year’s price of US$265 after receiving a government directive to do so.

“I do not see the benefit of growing maize other than for home consumption only,” said Mr Tobias Mpofu, who owns an A1 plot at Summerdale Farm in Mazowe District. “It makes no sense to sell a tonne of maize at US$180, but I have no choice. I cannot take my grain to the GMB because I have grown sick and tired of their antics.”

Mr Mpofu said he has every reason to be bitter because he feels the GMB has consistently let down the farmers in the past few months.

Maize farmers feel that they have been shortchanged by the GMB and they are now taking their grain to private buyers. But this is akin to flying from the frying pan into the fire, as many fly-by-night merchants have emerged to offer farmers cash payments of US$180 per tonne, which has almost become the official price.

This price is a far cry from what the farmers expected when they put all their efforts on the fields.
Estimations are that it costs up to US$300 to produce a tonne of maize, depending on a variety of factors that include price and application of inputs, labour costs as well as soil varieties.

Despite it being the staple crop, maize is now proving to be unpopular with farmers and some are now questioning the wisdom of growing the crop.

Just after the start of the grain marketing season, the GMB’s general manager, Mr Albert Mandizha, gave hope to farmers when he announced that the parastatal would expedite payment for deliveries to ensure that all farmers are paid within five days.

But it appears the GMB is failing to honour the pledge. A statement recently released by the GMB’s public relations manager, Mrs Muriel Zemura, showed that out of the 7 907 tonnes of maize delivered, the GMB had not paid for almost 80 percent of the figure. Out of the 7 907 tonnes, the GMB has not paid for 6 317 tonnes, which means that only 1 590 tonnes have been paid for.

To make matters worse, the government announced that it had released US$1,6 million for GMB to clear these arrears, but many farmers were shocked when the GMB spokesperson announced that the parastatal was yet to receive such money.

“We are still to receive the money, but we have been promised that it is coming,” said Mrs Zemura.
“As soon as the money is here, we will inform the farmers.”

It remains to be seen when the money will be made available to the farmers, but it is clear that they are already disgruntled. Some of them are now worried that they may not be able to repay the loans issued to them by banks last season.

“I do not know what to do next,” said Mr Mickey Madziwa, who owns a 60-hectare farm.
He explained that he is now in a dilemma because he is unsure of how he is going to repay a loan of US$12 000 which he acquired from a local bank last season. “I am holding on to more than 100 tonnes of grain and I do not know where I am going to sell it,” he said.

“I cannot sell to private buyers because they offer US$180. I would have made a big loss if I sell all my grain at this price. I am also not sure whether to sell to GMB because it will take an eternity to get the payment.”

Mr Madziwa said he now finds himself in a tricky situation because he is supposed to re-pay the loan by June 30.

Many other farmers find themselves in this predicament and they will risk losing houses, machinery, vehicles, livestock and other valuables, which they offered as security when they acquired the loans.

Agriculture commentator Mr Midway Bhunu said the problems which farmers were facing are not peculiar to the maize crop alone but to all other crops.

“It is quite sad that things are turning out this way in the agricultural sector,” he said. “It is even more worrying if you consider that maize is our staple crop and yet the sector is faced with such serious problems. “But it is not maize alone as the problem cuts across the whole agricultural sector. Cotton and tobacco farmers are also facing challenges in the marketing of their produce.”

Mr Bhunu said one idea was for farmers to come together and find their own solutions to solve these problems.

“We always look to Government to solve the problems for us, but farmers should also put our heads together  and see what we can do,” he said.

Mr Bhunu said his company would soon hold a historic conference to come up with strategies that encourage farmers to run their entities as profitable businesses.

“Everything that a farmer does, be it growing maize, or any other activity, should result in profit and not the agony that we are seeing today,” he said. “That will be the purpose of the conference.”

Fears are now high that most farmers will not grow maize in the next agricultural seasons because it has become one of the least marketable crops.

President of the Grain Millers’ Association of Zimbabwe (GMAZ) Mr Tafadzwa Musarara said the problem was compounded by the fact that maize farmers were facing an even more monstrous threat because of “the continued and unchecked cheap GMO imports of finished maize meal.”

He said maize and wheat farmers would continue to face challenges in marketing their crops if the government does not intervene.

“GMAZ urges the Government to urgently review its policy on imported finished products, especially maize meal and flour,” said Mr Musarara. “Our recommendation is that they should immediately reinstate duty tariffs on maize meal and flour.” Zimbabwe is expecting a crop harvest of 1,6 million tonnes of maize starting this month (June).

“In order to allow viable local producer prices, maize meal imports have to be discouraged to create market space for our own maize,” said Mr Musarara. “Most of these imports that Zimbabweans are relying on do not constitute a healthy diet.”

A dispute is also ranging between cotton farmers and merchants over the price of US$0,30 per kg, which is seen as too low.

Farmers are withholding their crop, demanding that the price be raised to at least US$0,75 per kg.
The selling of tobacco recently ran into problems after farmers accused merchants of lowering prices.
It took the intervention of President Mugabe for the merchants to offer reasonable prices.

Sunday Mail

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