A P100 million project gamble in the offing

It might be thought that government, having achieved so little from its ‘think big, spend big’ ventures would now be extremely wary of risking a repeat.

It is, of course, natural that, having been so seriously hurt in the recent election, it will feel under extra pressure to pull off a master stroke of some kind in order to give everyone that feel good factor which, right now, is so conspicuously absent. But whilst we are all recovering from the collapse of the multi-million Pula Delta Dairies project, we are told by Mmegi (28 April) that the government is going for broke by investing P100 in a major new dairy project in Lobatse. 

By now, of course, it should have learnt from bitter experience that it is better to start small and to learn from practical experience the kinds of problems that may have been only poorly understood by bureaucrats sitting in air conditioned, offices. Optimistically throwing huge amounts of money at this or that project without the necessary understanding has turned out in so many cases, to create more problems than they solve. Up and down, the country is a veritable graveyard of failed projects. The most obvious of these projects has been those involving chicken production – the abandoned remains being found almost everywhere. The dairy industry too has its own long history characterised by early success and later failure beginning with the establishment of the 1909 Dairy Cooperative in Lobatse.  Other initiatives have left behind evidence of past efforts. The most obvious are the modest road side milk collection points which were constructed in the 1930s as a result of Col. Rey’s remarkable and for a time successful push to get the dairy industry moving.

Then came Clutton Brock’s Bamangwato Development Association at Radisele in the early 1960s and Vernon Gibberd’s extraordinary success there and subsequently at Serowe with van Rensburg, and later at Mogobane, in successfully running dairy projects. He is keenly aware of the factors which caused each one of those projects to fall by the wayside. His enormous accumulated experience of farming, dairying not least would have made him a key figure in assessing the practicality of a new huge government owned and run dairy project in Lobatse. I much doubt that he would have supported the idea. It might be said that the government, suspecting as much, would have been reluctant to have him involved. 

More probably, however, it is unlikely to be aware that it even had such expertise at its disposal. But what chance of success does this new dairy project have? Not so long ago, there was a lengthy newspaper report about a Sunnyside dairy farmer, near Lobatse who confronted by so many problems, was doubting his ability to survive.

Those problems included the high cost of everything, the unreliability of feed stock supply, labour problems, problems with hyenas killing his hugely valuable animals and the lack of response from the Wildlife Department, transport and security problems, theft, marketing difficulties, and, not least, the general lack of support and indifference of the government. Seven years ago, CEDA approved a feasibility study for the Delta Dairies Project and gave it a huge amount of cash.

Everything indicated that this was one project which was virtually risk free. The government eliminated any commercial competition by increasing the tax on imported milk by 20% and by providing it with a guaranteed market. With an assured supply of milk from South Africa it seemed that nothing could possibly go wrong. But it did. And it crashed. Yet, here we are again committing more taxpayer’s money to a project that would seem to be infinitely more risky than Delta and despite BOCCIM’s warnings about its impracticality.

And this time around, starting up completely from scratch, means incredibly that 1,000 dairy cows are to be imported from the USA with all the attendant risks that are likely to be involved. Elsewhere in the world, dairy farming is an intensive high tech business that demands extremely high levels of hygiene.

This, however, happens to be a low tech country which is not only plagued by severe power and water problems but has had little reason to improve its hygiene practices. Seemingly it is also suffering from the effects of climate change with the failed Gaborone Dam providing evidence of a sharp decrease in the usual rainfall patterns. What, in the circumstances, could have convinced the government that dairying, of all possible projects could be pulled off?

Having no pool of people who have the experience of such projects and the necessary skills has meant that twenty people have had to be sent to the USA for training. Could such a project survive the kinds of problems that have been experienced elsewhere, low levels of productivity, the employment of poorly qualified people, labour difficulties, security problems, and incompetent management? All in all it has to be seen as yet another colossal gamble.

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