At face value, the P6 million fresh-fruit-and-vegetable processing plant in Selebi Phikwe looks like a really good idea because it will be used to process excess produce from the Botswana Horticultural Market (BHM) that would otherwise go to waste. However, consultants who asked penetrating questions about the plant discovered something both shocking and dismaying in the planners’ lack of attention to important details.
“A key challenge for the plant will be to achieve consistently high capacity utilization and maintain break-even volumes. In addition, there has been no research on potential market for its produce,” says a horticulture value chain report produced on behalf of the Private Sector Development Programme.
The whole project planning was severely wanting from the get-go. One of the objectives behind establishing the plant was to process lower grade and unsold produce from BHM in Gaborone. In one ironically tragic respect, locating the plant in Selebi Phikwe means that unsold produce will go bad on its way to a plant meant to process produce that would otherwise have gone to waste. The plant will also compete directly with the very same facility it was meant to have a symbiotic relationship with.
“The decision to locate the plant 400 kilometres from Gaborone will increase transport and wastage costs. Moreover, buying from BHM rather than directly from producers will potentially incur unnecessary additional costs for the plant. In addition, given the volumes needed for processing, BHM and the processing plant may become competitors for produce, rather than complementing each other,” the PSDP report says.
Working in concert with the Selebi Phikwe Economic Diversification Unit, the plant project will be managed by the National Food Technology Research Centre for the first three to four years after which it is hoped that the plant will be sold to investors. The plant is expected to have a capacity of 500-1000 kilogrammes per hour. There are three processing lines: for fruit (tomato puree initially, and later tomato sauces and paste); vegetable pickle (mixed vegetable, atchars and pickled onions and beetroot); and a drying line (cabbage, tomato and later spices). Assuming 60 percent of capacity, total production is expected to be 4000 tonnes per annum.
While Botswana has distinguished itself in many ways compared to the rest of the continent, there is still a persistent strain of irrationality that attends official decision-making. Years ago when a commission of enquiry investigated the University of Botswana at the instance of a parliamentary motion, it emerged that the varsity’s library didn’t recognise the Bachelor of Library and Information Studies degree from the very university (UB) that it was part of. Likewise, the introduction of a medicine programme at the university (which is in Gaborone) required partnering with a specially-equipped hospitality to enable the administration of practical training for student doctors. Such special equipment was installed 200 kilometres away at the Mahalapye District Hospital, forcing students to do their practicals at the latter than at Princess Marina Referral Hospital which is less than a kilometre away from UB.
Locating the processing plant in Selebi Phikwe may have had to do with the fact that the copper mining town has been ailing for some time and the government is doing all it can to keep it alive. The result has been that to all intents and purposes, Phikwe has been put on a unique (if costly) grand-scale social welfare programme. With the commodity prices slump, it makes commercial sense to shut down the BCL mine but the government has kept it running for fear that such action would result in economic ruination of the town.