The past two weeks have seen Zambians from every aspect of society complaining bitterly about the rising cost of mealie meal on the market. A 25 kilogramme bag of breakfast that we not so long ago used at buy at an average price of K85 has now skyrocketed to an average of K150 in Lusaka, and in some areas like Livingstone, it is being sold at around K170 in Spar.
About two to three months ago, a 25kg bag of Pembe breakfast mealie meal was being sold at around K85 to K90 in Woodlands area but today, it is K145 to K150! This is quite an astronomical increase ever seen in this country.
This is how bad it has gotten. Mealie meal is our staple food and touches the very core of any Zambian’s needs. Mess with mealie meal and you are almost messing with the entire nation! That is how it works in this country and that is how it used to be even during first president Dr Kenneth Kaunda’s days. Maize and mealie meal are highly political commodities that require careful handling by whoever is in the government. It is the same issue in South Africa where the price of a 25 kilogramme bag is now almost K200.
What has gone wrong now for us to be where we are? Through the Vice-President Ms Inonge Wina, Minister of Agriculture Mr Michael Katambo and Home Affairs Minister Mr Stephen Kampyongo, the government, over a week ago, made mention of some of the measures it was going to put in place to ensure reduced mealie meal prices. The government said it is unacceptable that millers can be selling mealie meal at exorbitant prices when maize is readily available on the market. But how much is this maize being sold at to the millers? A 50 kilogramme of maize is being bought for as high as K170, way above the Food Reserve Agency price for the same quantity. Because of this, farmers have opted selling their maize to private buyers to get a reasonable return on their investment. To us, this is what has contributed greatly to the rising prices of mealie meal, with other factors such as climate change that affected maize production in areas that are key producers.
If we look at prices of farming inputs currently prevailing on the market, we will see that the price at which a 50 kilogramme bag of maize is being sold is actually reflective of the cost of producing that maize. Right now, a bag of fertilizer is going for around K400. And some farmers require need not less than 40 bags of this fertilizer (basal and top dressing) to produce a reasonable amount of crop for sale to the Food Reserve Agency and probably private buyers. Don’t forget the seed, plus other labour costs for tilling the land until cultivation of the crops! At that cost of inputs and other labour that goes into producing crops, do we expect our farmers to walk away with peanuts? Of course not! They will sell their produce at whatever price is attractive for them to get a return on their investment. Remember that farming is a business and Zambia is a free market economy, meaning whoever offers the best price will take it all. And right now, the private sector has offered the best price for the maize, which is giving the farmers a reasonable return on their investments.
And the government has reaffirmed its policy position on maize and mealie meal marketing that it will not interfere with this sector and let the market dictate the price. Therefore, there is only one way to get the price of mealie meal down – reduce the cost of producing maize! Zambia has more than enough capacity to produce fertilizer from our Nitrogen Chemicals of Zambia. What is happening there? Secondly, Kabwe has a fertilizer plant established by the Chinese? How can we utilize that to reduce prices of the commodity? These are things we need to begin to look at and address as a matter of urgency if we want to see the price of mealie meal reduced.
Lastly, diversification is another answer. Over-reliance on maize is not doing the agriculture sector any good. We need to begin to look at ways of increasing production of rice, cassava, millet and other crops, which we can adopt as our main foods.