By John Phiri
A couple of months ago, we praised Agriculture Minister Mtolo Phiri for his accomplished and informative responses to members of parliament who were at the time anxious about delays in distributing agro-inputs as the farming season was fast approaching.
At that time we noted that Phiri’s more than 30 years in agribusiness and especially the cooperative movement, were much in evidence. He proved a highly believable character in the United Party for National Development (UPND) government.
One of the major reasons Phiri gave for what all MPs and small-scale farmers agreed was delayed distribution of inputs was that his Ministry had instituted an audit of fertilizer supply contracts that the previous government had given out.
Phiri emphasized then that the audit was necessary so that details of what went on with these fertilizer supply contracts were established.
Well, it is months now and the “re-organized” farming inputs programme has come and gone, yielding mainly the sudden death of the much-demonized agro-dealers, and the cleverly-justified deliberate skewering of fertilizer distribution in favour of Southern Province, North Western Province, and Western Province.
That justification was that it was to correct an imbalance, or the unfair distribution under the Patriotic Front(PF) government, which disadvantaged eligible vulnerable farmers in the three provinces.
Unfortunately, Phiri has been less forthcoming about the full details of this audit, which was so important as to have delayed flagging off distribution of farming inputs.
Phiri and his Ministry of Agriculture have displayed no transparency in releasing the full report of that audit.
Is it that the audit did not yield the information that “informers” had promised would finally nail suppliers they believed were close to the previous government?
But the audit appears to have been used as a good cover for un-evening the playing field in favour of one long term but smallest player among the five who had been in the fertilizer supply game the past close to two decades – the one now publicly known to be owned by the spouse of Information and Media Minister Chushi Kasanda, known as Alfa Commodities.
The second supplier is the perennially-limping Nitrogen Chemicals of Zambia given to supply 13,000 metric tonnes, to hide alleged tawdriness from the motive for this selection.
Phiri has come out less believable in giving reasons why this small player, Alfa Commodities, was suddenly “picked” to take the supply of 37,000 metric tonnes, which quantities the new government was commissioning urgently, and whose payment was reportedly promptly made.
When giving the latest picture a week ago, Phiri said so far he was only happy with how NCZ and Alfa have performed.
He said NCZ had delivered all its 13,000 tonnes; Alfa Commodities’ delivery was above 85% completion, with the assurance of conclusion by Friday, January 7, 2022; Neria was still to supply 50,000 metric tonnes; the OTHERS have already done so.
For some reason, Phiri could not even bring himself to name those OTHERS who had already fulfilled delivery of their full contracted quantity.
But somehow, he was also not unhappy about the performance of these OTHERS, who had also completed their delivery of fertilizer. Instead, he was happier with Alfa Commodities’ 85% to completion.
Since it is already known that NCZ and Alfa Commodities were paid their contract sums, can Phiri also tell the nation whether the OTHERS have also been paid for their deliveries, in the same manner, that these two now preferred suppliers have been paid?
But perhaps the more serious questions that will haunt Phiri up to the end of his tenure at the Ministry of Agriculture relating to the genesis of the famous fertilizer audit whose hidden findings have informed the new status given to Alfa Commodities which seems destined to become chief fertilizer supplier to the government.
These same questions have been asked by some other intrepid publishers: Since this so-called fertilizer supply audit was done by an outsider, which company did the work?
When was it contracted? What was the budget for this work and how was it financed? Did the owner of Alfa Commodities have any part in recommending to the Ministry the company that did the audit?
Could this work not have been done by the office of the Auditor General? The Author is Former Times of Zambia Managing Director.
Credit: Zambian Whistleblower