Sunday, January 29, 2023

Small businesses count the cost of government’s vegetable imports ban

The Government’s vegetable imports ban has thrown off the balance between supply and demand and Botswana’s small businesses are suffering the worst of it – documents passed to the Sunday Standard have revealed

The ban is expected to protect local vegetable farmers, improve Botswana’s food security and reduce the country’s import bill and grow local production.

But with that growth has come growing pains.

Documents which form part of the petition by small scale traders filed with the Office of the President and the Ministry of Agriculture reveal that big chain have sown up the limited vegetable supply market, shutting out small green grocers.

With most vegetable farmers having signed up their produce to big supermarkets, small businesses are facing up to a new reality – scraping by or shutting up shop.

A number of Batswana traders and representatives of the small-scale traders who have petitioned the Office of the President told Sunday Standard how scores of their colleagues have gone out of business as a result of the policy. They further claimed that the Office of the President and the Ministry of Agriculture have poured water over their complaints.

“We had written a letter to the Office of the President earlier this year seeking the intervention of President Mokgweetsi Masisi but up to now we have not received a response,” a Motswana trader, Siakhelana Ndlovu said.

She added : “As we speak, a considerable number of small traders including myself have gone out of business as the devastating effects of the policy took a toll on us; I’m just idling at home as we speak.” 

She said their request among others was that the government should not close the borders completely but allow for importation of at least 30 percent of vegetable and fruits commodities. She said the Ministry of Agriculture also rebuked them for having filed their petition with Masisi’s Office. “They told us that we should not have bypassed their office, but still they have not offered us any support or put measures in place to cushion our businesses when the ban s.”

Her colleague, Kgalalelo Kgwafiwa shared the same sentiment: “As we speak hundreds of us are idling at home as we could not cope with the effects of this policy.”  She says local producers have not developed the capacity “to supply us with their produce because they were not prepared to do so when the ban came into effect.”

Ndluvu and Kgwafiwa are among small-scale traders who filed a petition with the Office of the President in February this year. In their petition they indicated “as small-scale traders, we find ourselves in a position where we are not given sufficient produce due to the fact that our local farmers give first priority to chain stores.”

They also indicated that local farmers have contracts with chain stores and this is crowding them out.

“The shortage is experienced mostly on potatoes, watermelon, maize, different types of onions and lettuce. We kindly request that the restrictions on vegetable importation be lifted for a short period” as this has affected a lot of families that live off proceeds from small businesses.

According to the petition; “This has directly affected our business continuity leading to some of us failing to fulfill our commitments such as paying up loans e.g. CEDA, Letlhabile, Mabogo dinku.”

 “It even goes as far as being difficult to sustain living expenses such as the water bill, electricity bill and others. We will be more than happy to meet up and discuss this matter with your office.” 

Another group of Batswana traders which identified itself as Dipilara Traders Association, also petitioned Masisi’s Office and the Ministry of Agriculture. While they appreciated the government ’s intention to empower the value chains and the citizens by ensuring that the local market is protected, they requested the government to consider among others that the current vegetable producers do not meet the demand for most of the vegetables outlined in the list of restricted commodities.

“This has been demonstrated by producers’ failure to honour orders and thus creating a scramble or no supply as initially anticipated,” they said.  They argued that the restrictions create “slackness in the economic growth which is contrary to the intention of this policy stance in that most of the traders are in the informal sector and their source of income has drastically been affected by the limited vegetable production and the ultimate cancellation of orders due to skewed supply.”

The traders indicated that the restrictions do not only affect the vegetable supply chain but also create economic leakages and general loss of revenue by other sectors especially the informal sectors who may not directly or primarily be linked to agriculture.

The trader’s plea to the government is that the restrictions should only be imposed after ensuring that all registered vegetable farmers are indeed active in producing to meet the local demand.

“This will inevitably require updating the database and we as suppliers can work with the Ministry to indicate farms that are actually active.”  The traders indicated that the two-year review period is too long and this can create uncontrollable price increase in the vegetable market and inevitably result in a food insecurity situation which we do not believe is the intention of the current administration.

“We are also unsure of what really informed the two-year review period and whatever justification that MoA (Ministry) has, there should be an establishment of a database that indicates the actual number of active vegetables producers which will ultimately be used as a baseline to justify restrictions,” the traders said.  They indicated that if producers are not enough to meet the local or national demand, we recommend a six months review period as many factors can be influences the need for immediate changes. “In future we request MoA (Ministry) to consult with local vegetable traders as key stakeholders who can guide such policy changes through traders’ representation bodies,” they said.

Immediate comment from the Office of the President and the ministry was not available.

During a radio call-in programme recently, the Minister of Agriculture Fidelis Molao indicated that Molao said the ban would be reviewed only to expand the list of restricted vegetables and not to loosen it. But some Batswana who aired their comments indicated during the programme suggested that it was ill-advised as stakeholders were not consulted.

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