Prince Mushawevato and Emmanuel Kafe
THE recently constituted mealie-meal task force, whose mandate is to ensure transparent and equitable distribution of the product, has unearthed serious irregularities throughout the entire supply chain.
In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Mail Society, chairman of the taskforce, who is also Deputy Minister of Industry of Commerce Raj Modi, said they had identified syndicates causing “artificial” mealie-meal shortages.
“The situation is so disheartening. I’m so disturbed by what we are discovering. Some of the culprits responsible for creating supply and distribution anomalies have been identified. Sadly, the rot is at every level, which is from the grassroots going up.
“We are in the process of piecing together evidence so that we present a solid case in the coming days when we make public our findings,” revealed Deputy Minister Modi last Thursday.
The task force is making follow-ups with major suppliers and retailers of mealie-meal. This follows critical shortages of the commodity on the official market after Government re-introduced a subsidy programme to ensure that maize-meal, roller meal in particular, is available at an affordable price of $50 per 10kg packet to consumers.
Officials from the Zimbabwe Republic Police, Standards Association of Zimbabwe, Ministry of Industry and Commerce, Grain Marketing Board, Confederation of Retailers’ Association and the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority are some of the members of the task force.
So much is expected by disgruntled members of public from the team.
And Deputy Minister Modi opines positive results are set to be achieved.
However, he highlighted that the rot is so grave and has been ongoing for some time.
“I’m personally on the ground in Bulawayo, addressing some of the challenges. Some of the cases have taken us time to unpack as one person directs you to the next and you end up going around in circles. We are not deterred though as we are close to cracking this.
“However, I can’t tell you much at the moment. I would have preferred you interview me after we conclude our investigations at least four or five days from now,” said Deputy Minister Modi.
Millers under the new mealie-meal subsidy programme can source their maize from all possible sources, imports included.
Upon producing proof that they have milled and delivered the product, the subsidy is paid directly to millers by Government.
But the task force has identified disturbing trends.
For instance, some of the maize is disappearing before reaching the millers. Furthermore, the millers themselves, after getting supply, are channelling a huge chunk of the mealie-meal to the black market, not retailers.
Retailers are also equally guilty of “feeding” the parallel market.
“In Bulawayo we have the Silo mealie-meal displayed and being sold on the black market, in front of the Silo shop. It is partly through these illegal vendors that we are conducting investigations and tracing it back to the source of the crime,” Deputy Minister Modi said.
The task force chairman said a change of approach in maize and mealie-meal distribution systems is one of the many ways to deal with the ongoing crisis.
Smuggling of mealie-meal
Late last year, our sister paper The Sunday News, reported that there was a cartel of retailers and vendors who were hoarding mealie-meal in Victoria Falls and selling it in hard currency to Zambian cross-border vendors on the black market.
The report identified a popular spot known as “Emaplankeni” as the major market for the illegal trade.
The trend has not stopped thus far!
In fact, the situation has moved to another level. Truckloads of mealie-meal are illegally finding their way into neighbouring countries.
Zambian media reports indicate that mealie-meal brands from Zimbabwe have flooded the Livingstone market.
The Zimbabwean products are sold at relatively lower prices when compared to the Zambian products due to the subsidy programme.
“The rot is so severe to the extent that unimaginable things are happening. We are investigating everything, borders included. Our routine involves checking what the suppliers get and from who, names of retailers that received the product and the customers that bought the mealie-meal,” said Deputy Minister Modi.
Finance and Economic Development Minister Professor Mthuli Ncube recently revealed through the Zimpapers Television Network (ZTN) that smuggling of mealie-meal had become rampant.
“Roller meal is finding its way across borders. I am aware that some people are buying it and getting it across (borders), making a margin by selling at a higher price. We frown upon that,” said Minister Mthuli.
Besides mealie-meal, a variety of other products such as sugar, rice and juices are smuggled out of the country using both legal and illegal exit points.
According to investigations, some Government officials are said to be heavily involved in the scam.
They are alleged to operate through foot soldiers and proxies that they quickly bail out the moment they get arrested by law enforcement agencies.
Tracing the decay
Investigations by The Sunday Mail Society last week revealed that the mealie-meal crisis was far from over.
Both roller meal and the refined version of the product are currently not readily available on the official market. Scores of customers are still moving from one supermarket to another in search of the precious commodity.
However, when one visits pricey downtown tuckshops and the black market, they have access to the product.
The unscrupulous and often illegal traders charge the mealie-meal in United States dollars or bond notes (cash).
Backyard shops/traders that we visited in Mbare as we tried to unpack the supply chain mystery were busy repackaging mealie-meal from clearly labelled brands like Maworesa, Red Seal and Silo, into smaller and unbranded packs.
But what is the logic behind repackaging?
“We are repacking so that people buy what they can afford,” explained one vendor only identified as Silo Diva, pretending to care.
He gave a cheeky smile before his colleague bluntly added: “We heard that police are after people who are reselling mealie-meal being sold for $50, that is why we change bags.”
By the time of going to print, defiant traders pegged mealie-meal prices as follows — $75 to $130 for the 10kg packet, while 5kg was going for $65, a 2kg sachet was pegged at $20, while a 500g pack required one to fork out $11.
In hard currency, they were charging US$4 or equivalent in bond notes for a 10kg packet of Silo roller meal or any other unbranded packets.
Prices for refined mealie-meal depend on the brand but the cheapest was pegged at US$5 for a 10kg bag.
The unscrupulous traders have vowed to carry on with the illegal practice despite Government warnings.
“You will never find anyone selling mealie-meal at that $50 price. Wakamboona kupi sadza re $50 iwe? (Where have you seen $50 sadza?). I sell my product in United States dollars or bond notes equivalent.
“It’s not my fault that things are hard. You will still find me selling mealie-meal here no matter what. Tine mukoto wedu une ngweshe-ngweshe dzacho (We have the support of bigwigs). Customers are free to buy elsewhere. I don’t force anyone,” said one arrogant female shop- keeper.
The Confederation of Zimbabwe Retailers (CZR) has resolved that blacklisting members that are found guilty of supplying the black market with mealie-meal was the best way to go.
They also recommend that the Government should withdraw the licences of unscrupulous traders.
“As CZR, we’ll also take action against shops involved in inside marketing. One of the actions we will take involves blacklisting them from accessing the Government’s subsidised products. We will ask the millers to cease supplying them,” said CZR president Denford Mutashu.
He added that they will soon be monitoring mealie-meal distribution and selling in all the country’s 10 provinces.
The Grain Millers Association spokesman Garikai Chaunza weighed in: “We used to monitor how our products were distributed and sold but the Competitions and Tariff Commission wrote to us saying we should stop and we complied in July last year.
“It used to be our role to monitor but we are no longer allowed to do so. Given back our powers, we will bring back the situation to normal,” argued Chaunza.
Annual maize requirement
Zimbabwe’s annual maize consumption stands at 1,8 million tonnes.
By October this year, the country needed 800 000 tonnes to cover a gap in maize supplies until the next harvest.
In September last year, the country took delivery of the first consignment of 17 000 tonnes out of the 100 000 tonnes bought from Tanzania. Government paid for the maize as part of efforts to alleviate food shortages brought about by the drought.