Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Vegetables importation ban not going too well for consumers

“Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” was how Albert Einstein defined a particular mental condition. Going back at least a decade, Botswana periodically imposes a ban on the importation of certain vegetables in order to both protect and develop the domestic horticultural industry. During the period of the ban, three things always happen without fail: prices go up, the quality of available vegetables declines precipitously and some farmers harvest their produce way too early in order to fill quotas.

That has happened every cycle and is happening now. Prior to the ban, a bag of tomatoes sold for P50 but since its imposition, the price has almost doubled. Wholesalers and retailers are passing on this price increase to end-consumers. A manager of a high-end Gaborone restaurant says that in the business that he is in, prices that were already deemed too high rise even higher, driving customers away. Most of the vegetables being barred are from South Africa where mostly white farmers use sophisticated methods of farming and harvest-processing. The result is that the quality of produce is very high even by the most stringent international standards.

Following the ban, there were widespread complaints that the brownish potatoes grown locally take long to cook and are dirty compared to the khaki-coloured ones that were imported from South Africa. Related to this issue is that of variety. The restaurant manager says that high-end restaurants use cherry (baby) tomatoes to make salads. Not being able to get this type of tomatoes locally, these restaurants find themselves having to make do with traditional red beefsteak tomatoes that are not ideal for salads. There has also appeared on supermarket shelves, microscopic produce (like potatoes, tomatoes and beetroots) that was harvested too early.

Supermarkets require farmers who supply them with produce to meet a set quota and when some farmers can’t meet such quota with fully-grown produce, they ransack their fields for crops that are not market-ready. The oddest thing about these bans is that more than a decade after their introduction, the capacity of local farmers has not been developed to such standard that they can satisfy the market in terms of both quantity and quality. European consultants engaged by the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry have also raised red flags about what they refer to as the “border closure policy.” The latter is administered by the Department of Agricultural Business Promotion in the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Food Security through the National Horticultural Producers and Traders Committee (NHPTC).                                  

After reviewing this policy, the EU consultants stated the following in their report: “Whilst seen to be benefiting the domestic horticulture sector as a whole, the border closures policy is seen to benefit and disadvantage different segments of the industry. Larger producers are seen to be advantaged at the expense of many smaller producers whose interests are not fully considered. Retailers face higher prices and are forced to purchase inferior quality produce, leading to wastage. Moreover, the process of arriving at decisions on border closures is not widely publicised and is perceived as biased by many sector stakeholders. [The Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security] should review the current border closures process to ensure equity between all sector participants, publish the criteria and process for border closures, and consider disseminating the minutes of the NHPTC meetings arriving at each border closure decision.”

Sunday Standard sought clarification about this policy, including details about who members of the NHPTC are but the response never came.

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