Outside his close circle of friends, relatives and workmates, very few Batswana have ever seen Molebatsi Molebatsi in the flesh. The assistant Minister of Agriculture is however the uninvited guest at every dinner table in Botswana.
From fast food gourmands to around the table gourmet diners, complaints and compliments from the taste of the French fries to the appearance of the green salad almost always ends in his “IN” tray.
Ever since the government’s vegetable import ban, the ministry of Agriculture has been the lightning rod of controversy.
As local green grocers hurled insults about vegetable supply shortages and chefs railed against emaciated green peppers, Molebatsi’s name however never crossed their lips.
That is hardly surprising. The Assistant Minister of Agriculture’s name is a Setswana eponymous derivative from Isaiah 43:25 in the Bible: “I am he who blots out your transgressions.”
Sunday Standard investigators however joined the dots, and a tell-tale outline emerged: That the chubby legislator is the invisible hand behind the vegetable import ban.
For starters, as Assistant Minister of Investment Trade and Industry, Molebatsi was part of the team that put together Botswana’s Economic Inclusion Act. The Act enforced existing economic empowerment laws and initiatives, as well as, the effective participation of “targeted citizens” in the economic growth and development of the economy.
In January 2022 he was transferred to the ministry of Agriculture as Assistant Minister. The ink on his transfer letter had hardly dried when the Ministry of Agriculture announced the import ban on 16 vegetables. When the issue came up in parliament earlier this year, it was Molebatsi who stepped up to the plate to offer a defence. And when the Sunday Standard interviewed him last week, his passionate defence of the ban left very little room for doubt.
He explained that “Botswana is a net importer of food. We have a high import bill on most food commodities, horticulture being one of them. In order to address the challenge of relying on neighboring countries to feed us, government took a decision to ban 16 horticultural crops from January 2022 and it will last two years.”
Indications are that the government’s big gamble is actually paying off. Molebatsi is now serving almost all major vegetables on local dinner menus. Tomatoes, potatoes and onions “range between 50% and 70% of local production against demand, except for ginger, as local farmers are just beginning to get into production of this crop”, he explained.
He told Sunday Standard that, “generally, there has been an increase in total production of restricted crops to date, except for tomatoes. The percentage of local production for tomato since the ban has not increase because tomato is a warm season crop, given the chilling sensitivity of the crop, we normally do not experience better harvest during the cold season because 99% of tomato producers do open field production. The increase is anticipated during the warm season towards the end of the year. Another observation in spite of challenges of potato production due to climatic conditions in Botswana has seen farmers positioning themselves in the production of potatoes. We have further seen farmers exporting potatoes to Namibia after the local demand was met”
Molebatsi is confident that at the end of the two-year ban, Botswana would for the first time in history be able to feed itself and export surplus produce. This is not pure fantasy. There actually seems to be a concerted effort in that direction.
To ensure an adequate and consistent supply of vegetables from local farmers to meet the national demand for the vegetables, the government of Botswana has initiated subsidies for vegetable farmers. The subsidies are intended to fund programmes to mitigate adverse weather effects, increase vegetable production, and ensure good agricultural practices in vegetable farming. Farmers and industry experts are confident that the local vegetable industry can meet the national demand for vegetables and greatly benefit from the ban.
Molebatsi explained that they have put in place the “impact Accelerator Subsidy (IAS) to support farmers to increase horticulture production and provide access to production structures and inputs. IAS is destined to promote protected cultivation amongst horticulture farmers therefore promoting sustainable production. This intervention has availed capital to farmers hence ensuring increased production and improved quality.”
The Ministry of Agriculture publishes weekly updates on available products, locations and producer contact details to ensure that consumers have access to producers and produce.” This empowers consumers to make informed choices”, he said.