Year in, year out, it has become common to hear stories of grain farmers who lose out to unscrupulous middlemen who prey on cash-pressed growers and pay instant cash far below the price paid by the Grain Marketing Board (GMB).
They collect the grain and make their profit when they sell the grain to GMB or any other buyer requiring large quantities of maize.
But why do farmers deal with untrustworthy private dealers when there is the GMB with a specific mandate of buying grain from them to ensure national food security?
Why would a farmer accept $5 400 for a tonne for their hard-earned maize crop, while the GMB is paying $12 329,72 for the same unit?
It seems to defy logic, but the answer is simple.
The GMB’s systems may not be working efficiently enough to cater for the demands of all farmers in traditional farming areas and those resettled in some areas that were not meant for maize production.
And what do we mean by “demands of farmers?”
We are simply saying that the farmers want to sell their crop without hassles and without having to find transport.
Farmers can face insurmountable problems, or face a major struggle to sell their crop to the GMB, and thus opt for untrustworthy dealers, who would then, at times, end up selling that same maize to the GMB at the end of the value chain.
First, is the issue of accessibility.
Although GMB has a network of depots across the country, the very existence of middlemen shows that the depots are either inadequate or not strategically located to cater for the demands of all farmers.
GMB was established in 1931 as the Maize Control Board in response to the 1930 World Recession to address food insecurity challenges.
It was also created to serve the requirements of the colonial agriculture system.
At the time, and for several decades thereafter, Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector was dominated by a few white individuals dotted across the country, and these farmers wanted protection from black farmers who could grow the crop for a lower price.
But post-independence and especially after land reform at the turn of the century, there has been a significant shift in the overall outlook of the agricultural sector with indigenous Zimbabweans now making up the majority of farmers.
The indigenous farmers have taken over and are the ones producing all the maize to cater for both human and livestock consumption.
But the indigenous farmers are far more spread out across the country than the previous white farmers, which could be making it difficult for a number of farmers to access the available GMB depots.
In some cases, there are no access roads to the farms, and those dealers who risk their trucks going there end up charging below market prices to get the maize.
Middlemen are clearly taking advantage of the logistics problem being faced by these far-flung farmers by bringing trucks into these areas and buying maize at a very low price, which is prejudicing the farmers.
We reported yesterday that farmers, particularly in most parts of Mashonaland West, including Makonde, Zvimba and Hurungwe districts are being paid a small fraction of what they should be earning from their crops.
The GMB — which has 84 depots countrywide, 12 of them being silos — needs to open satellite depots in such areas and save the hapless farmers from these marauding dealers.
We also encourage the GMB to begin grain purchases early so that these unscrupulous middlemen do not cheat more from our farmers.
Delayed commencement of grain purchasing allows the dealers to move quickly into such areas and buy grains from desperate farmers that in some cases they resell to the parastatal.
But further than that, the GMB should expedite payments when farmers bring in their crop. There have been reports that the board can take months to process payments for farmers who managed to deliver their crop.
Most times, farmers need the money for subsistence and to prepare for the upcoming season, and delays in payments means they tend to struggle in this respect.
We encourage law enforcement to increase surveillance in areas that have seen increased numbers of these unscrupulous middlemen because if they are purchasing grain crop from farmers and diverting it to external markets, they are actually worsening food insecurity.
With the grain prices already attractive, the GMB needs to enhance its purchasing system to ensure that farmers feel incentivised to sell their produce to the board, which will also promote self sufficiency.
In our view, the GMB is not just a commercial entity, but a developmental or social institution as it helps to ensure food security in the country. It therefore has to play its roles effectively.
There must be mechanisms that ensure all grain produced is accounted for so that the country knows when to import or not given the scarcity of foreign currency.
We also propose that all farmers, no matter how small, should report to the nearest local government office or village heads the quantities they produce so that the country can have accurate records of food produced annually.
These figures help to identify desperate people who need State assistance.
The current arrangement where what villagers produce and store in their granaries has seen some undeserving people receiving state or donor assistance at the expense of desperate and needy cases.