|A truck loads bags of maize at Sawala in Muchinji District, Malawi. PICTURE BY JACK ZIMBA|
A MAIZE storage shed for the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) lies empty at Vizenge in Chipata, Eastern Province – not a single bag of the grain in store. Outside, a large green tarpaulin lies disused. Usually, it should be covering stacks of maize bought from farmers in this highly-productive area.
The records in the clerk’s book show that since July when the crop marketing season started, the FRA here has only bought 77×50 kilogramme bags of maize. It is just enough to fill one four-tonne truck.
There are only two entries in the clerk’s big book; August 31, when he bought 25 bags, and on September 22 he bought 52 bags.
“People just say they will bring the maize, but they don’t bring,” says Whiteson Phiri, the clerk at the depot.
With the crop marketing season almost over, the depot clerk sounds less optimistic of making a third entry in his ledger. Elsewhere in this region, the sheds were closed a long time ago, for want of business.
Something is awfully wrong. Where has all the maize in this area gone to?
The answer lies a few kilometres from here, at Sawala Trading in Mchinji district of Malawi.
I hitched a ride on a motorbike to Sawala, entering Zambia’s eastern neighbour through an old mission outpost called Tamanda, where Zambia National Service (ZNS) officers have been posted to stop the smuggling of maize in this area.
Chief Chanje’s area has every high activity of maize smuggling in Eastern Province.
We rode about a kilometre on a bush track that demarcates the two countries.
“This side is Zambia and this side is Malawi,” the bike-rider informed me.
I could not have noticed; there was nothing to show that this was an international border – just crop fields on both sides.
I arrived at Sawala to find a seedy but bustling trading area.
Everywhere you look at Sawala, there are stand-scales and stacks of maize awaiting transportation. Men could be seen busy weighing and sewing the bags.
The money changers were also at hand to change the currencies.
I found two Freightliners loading bags of maize, while a Zambian-registered truck BAB 6559 made its way back to Zambia empty, after delivering its cargo.
Back in August, at the peak of the marketing season, as many as 10 trucks would leave Sawala daily for Lilongwe or other towns in Malawi to deliver their prized cargo, according to my informer.
“It is almost as if the FRA has shifted to Malawi,” someone commented.
The traders at Sawala are wary and suspicious of strangers, but from the small vent of a pit latrine, I managed to capture the illegal trade with my camera.
Returning to Sawala the following day, I found two police officers chatting with the traders, obviously turning a blind eye to this illegal exchange across the border.
Since the harvest in April, the smuggling of maize in this area has gone on unabated.
Although Government stationed ZNS officers at the border crossing at Tamanda, it has done little to stop the smuggling.
Along this porous border, there are many entry points.
Just a kilometre from where the ZNS officers are stationed is an entry point – a road so busy with heavy lorries that the soil at the junction has turned into a loose powder.
At this point, trucks, cars, motorbikes and bicycles enter at will, delivering the maize.
“Last Friday, I saw 11 trucks cross to the other side,” headman Dzoole told me.
Dzoole village lies on the border with Malawi.
This kind of smuggling has been going on between the two countries for decades, but not on this scale, says headman Dzoole. The illegal trade has escalated in the recent past due to adverse weather affecting Malawi’s agriculture.
“Last year we saw a lot of Malawian trucks here collecting the maize and taking it to Malawi through the bush, but this year, it is the Zambian trucks taking the maize to Malawi,” said the headman.
One government official told me the only way to stop the smuggling is erecting a physical boundary such as an electric fence between the two countries.
“We are not saying we are at war with Malawi, but I have seen such fences within Southern Africa,” he said.
“Our border is naturally porous, right from Vubwi to Lundazi,” Chipata district commissioner Kalunga Zulu told me.
He said the illegal trade is driven by demand on the other side of the border.
“The demand for our maize is so high in Malawi that we cannot even meet the need,” he said.
The Malawian government is currently buying maize from vendors.
For the farmers of Chief Chanje’s area, the biggest cause of smuggling is the maize pricing and payment system for grain purchases.
Moses Phiri, who is one of Chief Chanje’s representatives, gives an analogy of a goat and cow to emphasise his point about the maize pricing.
“Tell me, if you are offered a goat and a cow, which one are you going to choose?” he asked, and waited for my answer.
At double the price per 50 kilogramme bag, Malawi is offering a “cow”.
Besides, the farmers prefer cash for their maize, which the FRA does not offer.
At Sawala, a 50 kilogramme bag is now costing K180. The price is rumoured to have reached K200 at one time.
The FRA is buying the grain at K85 per bag.
“Even a child on the breast would laugh at me if it heard that I sold my maize at K85 when I could have sold it for K150,” one farmer told me.
Essau Chulu of Dongolose village told me he sold 130 bags of maize to Malawi. His friend, Adamson Phiri, sold 100 bags.
“And how many bags have you sold to the FRA?” I asked them.
Both men wagged their heads.
“I don’t want to lie to you, I haven’t sold a single grain to the FRA,” Mr Chulu said.
The two farmers sound like unpatriotic Zambians.
“It’s not that farmers don’t want to sell their maize to the FRA, but they want cash,” Mr Chulu said, sounding upset.
The two farmers also complained about the requirements by the FRA for the farmers to clean the maize before selling it to the agency, which they say eats into their profits as they have to hire people to help them do the sieving.
“We also have to pay for transportation of the maize to the FRA depots, but the Malawians follow us to our homes,” said Mr Phiri.
“The FRA wants very clean maize, but the Malawians don’t care about the grade or how clean the maize is, they just get as long as it is maize,” he added.
And some, like James Nyirenda of Mulangeni village, now fear that many here will face starvation because they have sold all their maize to the Malawians.
“Soon many people here will require food aid from government because they have sold even the maize they were supposed to feed on,” he said.
Mr Nyirenda has a good-sounding solution to end the maize smuggling.
“Why can’t the government buy the maize from us at a higher price of, let’s say, K120, and then export it to Malawi at K150?” he wondered.
“That way, the government would benefit, and we would benefit, too.”
And because of the willingness by the Malawians to buy the maize at a high cost, it has pushed the prices of maize up on the local market. A five kilogramme container or meda of the maize now costs about K10, up from as low as K2.50 last year.
Last week, Minister of Agriculture Dora Siliya told Parliament that the country has enough maize, but that the FRA needs to buy 187,000 metric tonnes of the commodity to reach the country’s reserve ceiling of 500,000 metric tonnes.
The minister also assured the nation that there were enough stocks of maize with both government and the private sector.
Zambia is said to have produced 2.9 million metric tonnes of maize last season, plus a carry-over of 667,524 metric tonnes from the previous season.
According to Ms Siliya, the private sector has bought 903,630 metric tonnes of maize from this year’s harvest.
Government also announced an export ban of all maize.
But just how much has been smuggled into Malawi, is hard to know.
Mr Zulu, the Chipata district commissioner, said what the FRA has bought in Chipata is a drop in the ocean, compared to what has been smuggled to Malawi.
In the villages, I came across a few Malawians on bicycles mopping up whatever has remained of the grain in this area.
Back at the empty maize shed at Vizenge, the clerk waits and waits.