The government and horticultural farmers would disagree but a prediction that was made by an agricultural economist six months ago at a public forum has turned out to be spot-on.
The subject was the import ban on 16 vegetables and that prediction was made by Professor Patrick Malope, Head of the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, Botswana University of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Malope had just made a presentation titled The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Quest for Productivity in Botswana’s Agriculture at the Engineering Forum that was hosted by the Engineers Registration Forum in March this year. During the Q&A session, he was asked whether this ban would achieve the desired results. Introduced on January 1, the official purpose of the ban is to stimulate domestic production and bolster food security.
While he said that it was still too early to make a definite pronouncement, Malope hastened to add that agricultural production is a biological process that can’t be altered by anybody’s wishes. He added that most vegetables typically take three months to grow to maturity. In addition to the length of time that it takes crops to mature, there was also the question of whether farmers had enough land to produce enough to meet national demand. Nature aside, Malope expressed conviction that despite the ban and effort to stimulate domestic production, demand would continue to outstrip supply.
Six months later, demand does indeed continue to outstrip supply and in the case of some vegetable, effort to close that gap has been literally, starkly disastrous. At press time, a Gaborone supermarket was selling green tomatoes and under-developed onions the size of morula fruits. The previous day, an elderly female shopper had been heard to remark that she had passed by the tomatoes shelf earlier and assumed that they were not in stock because she couldn’t see any red – the colour of ripe, pot-ready tomatoes.
In the just-ended session of parliament, Maun West MP, Dumelang Saleshando, also raised this issue through a question. The response from the Assistant Minister of Agriculture, Molebatsi Molebatsi, made clear that, eight months after the ban, the country was still grappling with seemingly insurmountable supply problems. He quoted figures that showed that while the production of potatoes and onions had increased, that of tomatoes and ginger had decreased. As used by Molebatsi, “increased” was misleading because it included under-developed produce that has flooded the market to convey an impression of self-sufficiency when the reality is otherwise.
Prices have also increased, with those of ginger doubling and those of onions tripling. Saleshando asked the minister whether, out of realisation that domestic production hadn’t improved and that prices were going through the roof, the government would consider a partial import ban. The MP pointed out the oddity of vegetable prices rising exponentially at the same time that a supposedly concerned government had just zero-rated some food items to make them affordable.
Eight months is apparently not long enough for the government to determine the efficacy of the ban. In response, Molebatsi said that the government still needed a bit more time to make such determination. He described the rising vegetable prices as normal market behaviour that was to be expected when demand outstrips supply. He added that the shortage was to be expected and should serve as encouragement to Batswana farmers to produce more. He expressed conviction that production, especially that of tomatoes, would increase when warmer climate sets in.
During this discussion, Saleshando said that far from improving food security as has been officially stated, the alleged (and real) purpose of the ban was to surreptitiously bolster the commercial success of horticultural projects owned by the ruling elite.