TULI-BLOCK: Farmers in the Tuli Block area are decrying lack of support by traders who prefer to buy from South Africa, leaving local produce to perish due to lack of market.
Farmers expressed concern that traders have abandoned local farmers so much that they prefer to cross the border and buy in bulk to sustain their operations throughout the period when the borders remain closed. As such they say traders only buy from local farmers two to three weeks after the border has closed and their produce are then left to rot either in packages or on the farms, thus incurring huge losses.
Talana Farm has already lost P300, 000 on its tomatoes from the beginning of this season because of lack of market.
Farm manager Janie Willemsa has urged the government to take a firm stand on border closures, expressing the fear that Botswana's horticulture industry will collapse if the situation is allowed to go unchecked. The border was closed for onions last Monday but none of the traders has ordered from the farm, which is already harvesting onions for sale.
He added that the situation has left them in a state of despair and cited an incident in which they had to sell potatoes at half price for six months. He noted that farmers are not the ones who decide prices for their produce but they are agreed upon at border closure meetings by farmers, Ministry of Agriculture officials and traders only for traders to renege on their undertakings.
He added that traders compare the local farmers first grade products' prices with South African third grade prices. "South African prices are like a roller coaster while ours are constant and are negotiated with all parties involved."
The Talana farm manager said they have brought this to the attention of the Agriculture ministry and complained that the input price in Botswana has doubled in the past year and urged the public and traders to know that border closure is necessary for diversification and ensures food security. He argued that the farm produce in Botswana have been rated to be the same quality as those from South Africa.
The manager said there is nothing they can do as they are at the mercy of traders, which "is not a good scenario at all". He encouraged government to continue with border closures.
"What commitment is there for local production and diversification because others are not in the game?" he asked. "Traders must support local farmers at all cost. All they want is to negotiate for lower prices and the profit margins between them and us are a dilemma. They must appreciate that we need each other to survive. If the government is not enforcing its laws and protecting us, we will end up having to throw half of our produces away until a point where we could not continue with the horticulture industry anymore."
Willemsa said despite all these setbacks, they have to fight to remain in business but stressed that without the government's intervention, they cannot fight because their hands are tied. He assured traders that his farm produces high quality products and hoped they (traders) would not abandon them to rot.
He lamented that he employs over 500 workers at harvest seasons but when there is no market, it becomes a
Jeremia Modise, of Backline Farm in Tsetsebjwe near Zanzibar border post, said the situation is similar with that of Talana Farm. "We always see traders' trucks by-passing us to cross the border. We set the prices together at the end they do not buy and claim that we are expensive. They compare our first grade products price with South Africa's third grade prices."
Modise said this is a serious issue that does not promise to end soon and suggested that the only solution is to close the border otherwise horticulture in Botswana will die. He added that they normally inform the ministry that traders do not support them unless only during border closures. According to Modise, traders are after abnormal sale margins - not quality - they do not consider the input costs and all they want is to dictate prices.
"Painful enough they pay a month after and do not consider the fact that we should also make money to be able to supply them the next day."
He, however, said because they are smaller, they do not lose as much as Talana Farms and harvest on demand and not for packaging. Backline farm had ploughed five hectares of cabbage and two hectares of tomatoes and part of the yield was lost because of lack of market. Modise stated that this affects their cashflows to the extent that they cannot even afford to buy seeds and are forced to downsize the workforce.
Pakatse Farm official Kgomotso Mathame said his farm is in the same predicament. He said they had talks with the ministry over border closures but the situation has not improved. He said traders buy stock in bulk from South Africa to be able to sell throughout the border closure period, thus locking local farmers out of business.
"Our products are rotting and I wish government could do something or at least limit traders' licences." He also said they have already lost tons of produce.One of the women traders, who preferred anonymity, said she does not regret having spent so much money on fuel to South Africa "because it is cheaper and prices are negotiable" there than with local farmers. She said she acknowledges that local traders need to be empowered to ensure food security in the country but "local farmers must also reduce their prices in order to stay in the market".
She was in the dark about what a grade is and how it influences the price of a product.
Assistant Minister of Agriculture Shaw Kgathi said in an interview with Mmegi that there has been illicit trade as some local people smuggle produce from South Africa at the expense of local farmers even when there is sufficient supply within the country. The assistant minister said it is not only a problem in the agricultural sector but it is the same with other sectors.
"There are customs regulations that would now have to be enforced and tightened to bring the situation under control."