Profit in a Drought Year, Government's Undemocratic Dance with Private Grain


 By Takura Zhangazha*

The  Minister of Agriculture, Mechanization and Irrigation Development, Joseph Made recently announced that in order to mitigate the drought Zimbabwe is faced with, government is set to import Us$260 million worth of maize from our neighbour, Zambia.  This is largely to be done through private players in the grain importation sector who have been granted permits from his ministry.

The Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe (GMAZ) in what is clearly a policy change lobbying act also announced that this initiative is somewhat unfair to other private players in the grain importation business. 

Appearing on local television, the chairman of the GMAZ, Tafadzwa Musarara stated that his organization was trying to lobby Made to allow further  importation of maize not only from Zambia but also from Argentina and Brazil via our borders with South Africa and Mozambique.

These statements from GMAZ also occur against the backdrop of the relevant ministry having announced that it has  issued  permits to a number of private maize importers who have only delivered 450 000 tonnes of a total of 1, 2 million tonnes from Zambia thus far.

So essentially there are two sides to this particular coin.  Government is arguing that if anything, it has already agreed to the importation of maize by private players who are still failing to meet the delivery target.

Other private players, as represented by  GMAZ are arguing that the failure to deliver is predicated on the fact that the maize is only permitted to come from Zambia largely via Chirundu because the railway system is not fully functional. They want other border posts to be utilised and not just for importation of maize from Zambia. 

The common element to this coin is the fact that there is agreement that it is the private sector that will play a key role in the delivery of much needed maize imports.  The difference is the quantitative extent to which maize will be imported from other countries via other border posts and with many more private players. 

It is an argument that is tantamount to being a squabble over pieces of the cake.  And a lucrative one too given the fact that fixed maize prices were done away with in 2015.

Not that it is a peculiarly new development to issues over and about the importation of various grains into the country. Particularly for wheat, due to our regular winter crop failure and maize, due to our recurrent experiences of poor rainfall seasons. 

It generally works like this.  Private players apply for government permits to import specific grains for a profit and under the regulatory eye of the Agricultural Marketing Authority (AMA).  Specifically for maize and in order to re-stock our reserves after a poor harvest, permits have been issued to private players to import mainly from Zambia.

In the circumstances of the officially tentative but in reality now apparent drought, government and private players know for a fact that maize is going to be desperately needed by thousands of families in Zimbabwe. Not just via food aid because that is already tightly controlled.  Its also about access to state resources, the market and therefore, the profit.

And government and the private players are very much aware of this. That is why the price of a bucket of maize has gone up to US$7 at agricultural produce markets, a price that is hardly affordable for many poorer families that are affected by the drought.

In essence this means if you have no money to buy maize, you have to wait for the government approved food aid donor in order to eat the staple meal.

The structural dimension of this is that food aid is to a greater extent privatized, even if the government denies it.  State resources for payment of procurement of maize to private players shall be used and for a profit.  It also means, as is already the case, a parallel maize price regime and will emerge as most of the maize meant to assist the poor will most likely not be properly accounted for.  Or, as has always been the general case, those with access to money and resources, will eventually politicize maize distribution.

Given the emerging narratives and maize importation framework squabbles in the context of what already is a debilitating drought, it is increasingly clear that whatever plans government and the private sector have are  motivated more by profit than an intention to give people centered relief.  And its not a one-off plan.  It may unfortunately be the only long term plan that government currently has for the drought in direct collaboration with what it considers favorable sections of capital.  With this, the danger is the emergence of a rapacious ‘natural’ disaster capitalism or the creation of more or less permanent privatization of how to make ridiculous and undemocratic profit out of the natural disaster that is a drought. Even if caused by El Nino and poor state preparedness for what science had long predicted.


*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (