Border closures policy for fresh produce shrouded in secrecy

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As if the secrecy of the border closures policy was not enough, the communications department in the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security is adding another layer of secrecy to this controversial policy.   Five years ago, European Union consultants conducted a desktop study on Botswana’s horticultural value chain on behalf of the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry. This was done as part of the Private Sector Development Programme which is now being superintended by Business Botswana. On occasion, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security imposes restrictions on the importation of fresh produce – which policy is seen as empowering to local farmers but in some instances, disempowering to consumers who are dissatisfied with the quality of local produce. The border closures policy is administered by the Department of Agricultural Business Promotion through the National Horticultural Producers and Traders Committee (NHPTC).                                   

After reviewing this policy, the EU consultants stated the following in their report: “Whilst seen to be benefiting the domestic horticulture sector as a whole, the border closures policy is seen to benefit and disadvantage different segments of the industry. Larger producers are seen to be advantaged at the expense of many smaller producers whose interests are not fully considered. Retailers face higher prices and are forced to purchase inferior quality produce, leading to wastage. Moreover, the process of arriving at decisions on border closures is not widely publicised and is perceived as biased by many sector stakeholders. [The Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security] should review the current border closures process to ensure equity between all sector participants, publish the criteria and process for border closures, and consider disseminating the minutes of the NHPTC meetings arriving at each border closure decision.” The Ministry was to take lead responsibility for this task.That was in 2015 and five years later, nothing has changed. The border closures policy is still shrouded in secrecy and being implemented no differently.

The Ministry still doesn’t publish the criteria and process for border closures and still doesn’t disseminate minutes of NHPTC meetings about how each border closure decision was arrived at. More than a month after Sunday Standard sought clarification on this issue through written questions and after protracted but ultimately fruitless follow-up, no response has been tendered.Through the questions, we had sought to know who the current members of the NHPTC are and whether the Ministry of Health and Wellness and the Hospitality and Tourism Association of Botswana are represented in the NHPTC. The issue of “inferior quality produce” which the EU consultants make in their report, raises the question of whether any consideration is made with regard to nutritional security – lack of which compromises health. Inferior quality produce also presents a challenge for hospitality establishments, some of which – as those in the Okavango Delta, serve a high-paying clientele that expects high quality in every aspect of the service it gets.Some of what the EU consultants describe would be considered corruption by the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime. The report says that while the border closures policy protects some farmers who produce vegetables that qualify for border closures, it leaves others unprotected.

 “It reduces incentives for product diversification. It does not take into account the quality of available produce. Moreover, the feedback received suggests that some large farmers have a disproportionate influence on the timing of closures, enabling them to benefit from higher prices for their produce. Although the final decision on closures is taken by a group comprising a range of sector stakeholders, there is a perceived lack of transparency about the process leading to the closures. Some retailers feel that the closure policy forces them to purchase sub-standard vegetables, a large proportion of which is eventually rejected by their customers. On the other hand, there have been claims that large retailers attempt to stockpile fresh fruits and vegetables on occasions in order to reduce the impact of border closures.”