Dar/Tunduru — The 2019/20 cashews trading season has been hit by shortage of packaging materials, with farmers expressing fears that the crop could be damaged by rains if immediate measures are not taken to save the situation.
Farmers in Tandahimba, Newala and Masasi in Mtwara Region have expressed much anxiety regarding the problem - with those in Tunduru in Ruvuma Region describing the challenge as 'severe,' compared to previous years.
Leaders of the Tandahimba and Newala Cooperative Union (Tanecu), the Masasi and Mtwara Cooperative Union (Mamcu) and the Tunduru Agricultural Marketing Cooperative Union (Tamcu) told The Citizen yesterday that the problem stemmed from the Sh7.9 billion debt the government owes suppliers of packaging materials for the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons.
But, the government says that, although it was true that previous debts could cause scarcity, it was also true that cooperatives were also negligent in their approach of the matter.
"They consulted the government when it was already rather late. We have assured suppliers timely payment and things are now moving. Regarding previous payments, I will be meeting cooperative unions to deliberate on the matter as I've just arrived in Mtwara," the minister for Agriculture, Mr Japhet Hasunga, told The Citizen on phone yesterday.
The best cashew nut grower for 2018/19 season in Ruvuma Region, Mr Salum Mbonde, said the shortage has affected the auctioning flow of the crop.
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Speaking to The Citizen, Mr Mbonde said he has harvested 19 tonnes of cashews this year - but only seven tonnes had been sold with two other tonnes waiting for availability of packaging materials.
Another farmer, Ms Hawa Machemba, said the shortage of packaging materials has contributed to declining amounts of raw cashews that were being auctioned in the district.
The Cashewnut Board of Tanzania's auctions report show that Tamcu had sold 13,487.313 tonnes of the produce as of December 8 this year.
"Adequate supplies of packaging materials would enable farmers to take more cashew nuts for auctioning - and prevent them from the recently-witnessed falling prices," she said.
For his part, Mr Ngauja Mohamed called upon the government to immediately intervene and enable them to get money for investment in the business, improve their homes and pay school fees for their children.
The Mamcu general manager, Mr Protence Rwiza, said the government owes the union Sh5.2 billion for the packaging materials which were used in the 2017/18 and 2018/19 crop seasons.
"In the 2017/18 harvest season, the-then Agriculture minister, Charles Tizeba, pronounced during the stakeholders meeting in Dodoma that agricultural inputs and cashew nuts packaging materials would be supplied to farmers free of charge. The announcement was made at a time we had ordered and paid for Sh2.9 billion-worth of packing sacks," he said.
He added: "Last year, Sh2.3 billion was spent on empty sacks - just to be told that the government was that season's sole buyer. Since buyers are the ones who pay for packaging materials, the government, therefore, owes Mamcu Sh5.2 billion."
He said Mamcu has been adversely affected by debts owed to them by the government, noting that they remained with 400,000 sacks in stock compared to the one million sacks needed.
According to him, the union was forced to 'borrow' 210,000 sacks from Tanecu - and that they were expecting 270,000 empty sacks: 120,000 from the usual supplier, Dirma Holding Company Ltd.
"We have also purchased 100,000 sacks from Mohamed Enterprises Ltd - and 50,000 more from other sources," he said.
The Tanecu chairman, Mr Shaibu Aifai, said the government owes their union Sh1.9 billion for packaging materials used in the last crop season. The amount was secured from the CRDB Bank in the form of a loan.
"We are unaware of how Tanecu will service the loan after the government's intervention in the market ostensibly to protect the interests of farmers last year, thus locking out private buyers," he said. He said this year they have estimated to use one million sacks - noting that 700,000 of the sacks were left over from the 2018/19 season. However, 210,000 sacks were borrowed to Mamcu.
According to him, the shortage of packaging materials has negatively impacted the amount of cashew nuts which were taken to warehouses for auctioning in the last two weeks.
The Tamcu general manager, Mr Imani Kalembo, said the government owes their union over Sh810 million; about Sh100 million for the 2017/18 season, and Sh710 million being part of the Sh1.2 billion spent in the last season to purchase empty sacks.
"The current shortage amounts to 145,000 sacks after Dirma Holdings Company had supplied 150,000 sacks out of the 295,000 sacks estimated to be needed. The contractor has promised to supply 90,000 sacks in two days," he said.
Mr Kalembo - who was accompanied on his trip to Dar es Salaam by other cashew stakeholders, including the Tunduru District Commissioner, Julius Mtatiro - said they have suspended collecting cashew nuts from remote areas for lack of sacks.
"It is true that we have come to Dar es Salaam to push for accessibility of empty sacks after finding that there is a problem with our regular supplier," said Mr Mtatiro when contacted via the phone yesterday.
When contacted, the Dirma Holdings managing director, Mr Charles Gapchojiga, said his company signed contracts with Tamcu, Mamcu, Runali, Lindi Mwambao and Coast Region Cooperative Union (Corecu) to supply packaging materials.