Up until Botswana government introduced a vegetable import ban in 2021, the total estimate bill for vegetable imports stood at around $34 million a year. This is quite substantial given the small size of the Botswana economy and also the small population. Close to 99 percent of those imports were from South Africa. In Southern Africa, it is not only Botswana that has introduced a vegetable imports ban. Namibia has its own version.
It too it imports from South Africa. The ban was supposed to benefit Batswana businesses who were expected to use the veil of protectionism to venture into that market. And those already in it to grow. That has not happened the way it was expected. Firstly because there is too much illegal influx of vegetables especially from Zimbabwe. There are still a lot of loopholes to closed down. Botswana is grappling with unsustainably high levels of unemployment. The situation is worse among the youth. And agriculture offers a significant pathway out of it all. Botswana government will have to do much more than just close the SA borders when it comes to vegetable imports. A lot is happening in the east too.
Zimbabwe has just moved swiftly to take over the position that was occupied by SA before the import ban. Many of the people selling vegetables by the roadside in Botswana today are not Batswana. They are Zimbabweans. These are vegetables that are not available anywhere in Botswana, much less inside the big SA retail shops trading in Botswana. Botswana government might have closed out SA veges, but not so much the Zim ones. It will also have to look at tightening of screws that side too. Naturally South Africa is not happy. But to be fair, SA has a much more diversified market for their vegetables. Much of that market is inside South Africa, but also other countries like Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho and even overseas.
What is important for Botswana government is to ensure that the time of the ban is used productively. Batswana farmers should work on quality and also on supply chain. They need to work on reliability and also on enhancing technology. More crucially, these farmers have to work on becoming self-sustaining. That means learning to compete with their peers when the import ban is ultimately lifted as will inevitably happen. Botswana should move fast to benefit from the import ban while it lasts. Very soon circumstances will change.
Protectionism is never the best way to do trade, especially for countries like Botswana the espouse capitalism, fair competition fair trade . Interestingly Botswana is a champion of Africa Continental Free Trade Area. It will not be long before Botswana’s ideals and indeed commitment to free trade area are scrutinized and even questioned. The vegetable import ban provides an opportunity for it. Botswana cannot ride two horses at the same time.
Rather than inward looking, Botswana needs to be outward looking. This is especially so because we have a very small domestic market. When we go out to attract investors we tell them that Africa is the market. We are a base for them to enter that market. We need that to be able to continue projecting our global influence, even if that could often mean us punching above our belt. For the local farmers, the ban could be a window into an epochal transformation. Not only does the ban give producers a breathing space, it allows them time and room to invest so as to put themselves into a higher pedestal for competition that will no doubt become more and more fierce with time. Consumers are today much more demanding. They do not care about nationalism. They want quality, especially when it comes to food.