28 December 2012

Zambia: Mealie-Meal Not Weapon for Political Battles!

THE unpleasant occurrences in the mealie meal trade have convinced us that Government must move a step further to break the web of deals by some people who seem desperate to stir confusion and incite citizens against the national leadership.

We are inclined to draw this conclusion because mealie meal is our staple food and any instability in its pricing is bound to wrench at the hearts of consumers.

The high prices -- and in some cases shortage -- of mealie meal are creating insecurity in the food system and could, if left unchecked, be a source of bigger problems for our country in the future.

We fail to understand the ever-rising prices, in a number of places as high as K80,000, at a time when the Government is making appreciable efforts to flood the market with grain, which should in turn make the staple food affordable to all.

While it is acknowledged that in a free-market economy traders must be allowed to determine prices according to the rules of demand and supply, we find it unreasonable for our millers and retailers to fix prices way beyond what many citizens could afford.

President Michael Sata is in order to yet again warn millers against exploiting Zambians through exorbitant pricing of mealie meal.

The Government could not be expected to watch from the sidelines, while a cartel of millers and traders are boosting their incomes through their unreasonably priced mealie meal.

What is particularly disturbing is that the Government is ensuring that there is a steady supply of maize on the market and yet some millers, despite getting the grain at the reduced floor price of K65,000 per 50 kilogramme bag, are making what is considered a killing.

Only recently, Government, through the Food Reserve Agency (FRA), embarked on a special exercise called Operation Flood the Market under which it will offload 112,860 tonnes of maize to millers across the country.

The offloading of the maize on the market is in line with the agency's mandate to ensure that the grain is released from the strategic food reserve to help stabilise the prices of the staple food.

We applaud the steps FRA has taken to seal all the possible loopholes. For example, Operation Flood the Market is being managed by a nine-member task force headed by the Commission's executive director.

The exercise is expected to run smoothly by reducing on paper work previously associated with maize allocations to millers.

According to the FRA, the task force was set up to facilitate the expeditious processing and allocation of applications received from millers under specified terms of reference.

The terms of reference are allocating maize to millers based on applications received, and processing the required documentation within 24 hours once payment was effected.

Other terms are ensuring that loading at FRA depots is quicker to facilitate a steady supply of the maize grain from FRA depots to the milling plants.

However, since much of the blame is still being pinned on the millers, we implore the Government to scrutinise the process and make it watertight.

We agree with President Sata who yesterday said the continued hiking of prices would leave Government with no option but to employ counter-measures such as reintroducing price controls.

Many Zambians are still unemployed while others in employment are labelled as the working poor since they are in the lower earning categories.

Pushing up the price of the staple food, therefore, becomes more burdensome for them.

We are aware of the double standards that have been played in the maize sector and the shifting of the blame among players in the industry, but this cannot be allowed to go on because it is the consumer who is ultimately bearing the pain.

We also know that some millers have joined forces with groups whose tactics are calculated to ensnare the Government and diminish its achievements.

But it is not fair to take advantage of the poor majority just in order to settle political scores.

We urge all the detractors in the mealie meal business to reflect deeply and not use mealie meal as a weapon for personal battles.

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