Alpha and United Capital Fertiliser claims prove last year’s lessons have been missed


Alpha and United Capital Fertiliser claims prove last year’s lessons have been missed

By John Phiri

Apart from being pre-tender arm-twisting to secure forthcoming 2023/24 fertiliser supply contracts, the grandstanding displayed by Alpha Commodities and United Capital Fertiliser over their self-proclaimed fertiliser distribution prowess , has also confirmed that they harbour no contrition regarding the impending poor grain harvest in Zambia, caused by last year’s haphazard farming inputs handling.

This awkward chest-thumping by the two firms also appears to be calculated to deflect the country’s attention from effecting a thorough post mortem of the 2021/22 and 2022/23 government tenders for procurement, delivery and distribution of fertiliser for the Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP).

Which review should not gloss over the effect on the market of such matters as the single sourcing of Alpha Commodities for the $50 million tender, that gave this firm, said to be run by an ally of President Hakainde Hichilema, and husband of Information Minister Chushi Kasanda.

The review should also include critical issues such as whether delayed procurement of fertiliser in 2022/23 tender, which resulted in very late delivery of inputs, and the mad dash to complete the programme could have created conditions that allowed delivery of some sub-standard fertiliser.

For example, in parliament on Tuesday, Chilubi Constituency member Mulenga Fube asked whether the Ministry of Agriculture was aware that United Capital Fertiliser Company and the Export Group Trading (ETG) supplied sub-standard D Compound and Urea fertilisers to farmers in Samfya, Lunga, Lubansenshi and Chilubi areas.

In response to the question, Acting Minister of Agriculture confirmed the two firms supplied fertilisers to the districts in question, and that the Zambia Agricultural Institute(ZARI) had certified the fertilisers as having conformed to all local standards.

He also said ETG was a respectable firm that had operated in Zambia for 10 years, and whereas United Capital Fertilisers was recently established in Zambia and had “state of the art” equipment to manufacture fertiliser.

But running operations in Zambia for 10 years, for ETG, and installing state of the art equipment, in the case of UCF, do not in themselves guarantee the firms should not be investigated if farmers in these areas have complained about having received sub-standard fertilisers.

The Acting Minister of Agriculture did make a valid point when he stated that crop failure was not a matter that could be attributed solely to poor quality feriliser applied, since there were factors such as the four named areas falling in the very high rainfall regions of Zambia.

However, in the absence of an actual study to ascertain the specific factors responsible for crop failure in these areas, it is impossible for the Acting Minister of Agriculture to rule out specifically the quality of fertiliser, as complained of by farmers who received and applied it to their crops.

Surprisingly, other questions from opposition members of parliament were disallowed because they were “speculative as they were not informed by specific findings of a study”.

But The House seemed oblivious to the fact that the response by Acting Minister of Agriculture, which also did not quote a specific study ruling out sub-standard fertiliser from the factors that have caused this crop failure, was equally speculative.
Among these questions was one from Stephen Kampyongo (Shiwang’andu) who asked whether a team was dispatched to ascertain the specific reasons for crop failure, before ruling out quality of fertiliser, and Hon. Mulenga Fube (Chilubi) who asked whether the fertiliser labeled “Lico” failed to interact with the acidic soils of these high rainfall acidic soils of these districts.

These are serious matters which the government and the whole country should focus on in the review of the two fertiliser tenders, before embarking on the new tender.

But last Saturday, United Capital Fertiliser (UCF) was crowing about having 52,250 tonnes of D Compound and 30,000 tonnes of Urea fertilisers already available in the country.

Chairman of UCF Chance Kabaghe also said his company plans to produce 200,000 tonnes of D compound locally, a claim meant more to continue to sway public opinion and provide government evaluators with prior justification for a guaranteed positive outcome in the forthcoming tender.

Remember, in last season’s tender UFC failed to make the initial cut of the six best evaluated bidders, which was later cancelled by a clever government instigated “violation”.

To improve its chances, UCF introduced the element of the future benefit of local production of fertiliser.

A strong lobby and well-timed launch of this local manufacturing operation followed, at which Vice President Mutale Nalumango nearly jumped with excitement, even when many already knew it was predominantly a ruse to secure UCF a contract to import fertiliser.

Therefore, for its part of the review of the last fertiliser tender, what UCF should be telling the nation is what quantity of the fertiliser it supplied was manufactured at its “state of the art” plant in Lusaka, and how much was imported.

Even in last week’s report, Kabaghe is not stating how much of this 52,250 D compound and 30,000 Urea fertilisers his company is currently holding have been manufactured by UCF in Zambia.

Instead he jumped to the bombastic claim of his company planning to produce 200,000 tonnes of D compound fertiliser. The question is how long would it take for his plant to produce this amount? Till the next millenium?

Kabaghe should spare the nation his stupendous claims and instead give accurate information on how much fertiliser his company is currently able to produce, per day, or month or year. Everyone knows that this so-called local production is simply the crutch he is currently using to lobby for contracts to import fertiliser.

Then on Monday, Alpha Commodities, run by the putative ‘Fertiliser Guru in Zambia’, announced it had set a record by commencing fertiliser delivery and distribution to Southern PRovince using a model that will make the commodity available “and affordable” to farmers throughout the year under FISP.

According to Alpha’s Ndeleki Miyanda, what they have started in Southern Province can be replicated in other provinces. Will model be imposed on all other suppliers or Alpha is set to take over more provinces?

But after reading the whole story, it was still unclear what record Alpha Commodities has broken, apart from being the first company favoured by the United Party for National Development (UPND) handing out the first single-sourced fertiliser supply contract to the tune of $50 million in 2021.

The model Miyanda is touting is simply the outworking of the advantages accruing to Alpha Commodities, kick-started by that $50million single-sourced contract which was paid for upfront, compounded by its guaranteed position as the only permanent fertiliser supplier, for the duration the UPND are in government.

Alpha Commodities, it also appears, has now been installed as the only company that can be allowed to supply deliver and distribute fertiliser to Southern Province. Is it not surprising that they are already delivering fertiliser in Sourthern Province even before the tender is advertised.

How does Alpha Commodities know that after the tender is evaluated, it will be picked to service Southern Province?

In case it has already been forgotten, last farming’s fertiliser procurement, delivery and distribution cannot be characterised to have been a success. President Hichilema has already conceded it was not, because it actually ended with some beneficiaries not having received inputs.

It started with a claim that it would be the most efficient ever seen, after “cleaning up the system”. But the opposite has been true.
After kicking off with the promise of being concluded before the on-set of the rains, targets were then consecutively missed, and deadlines kept creeping into the following months, creeping all the way up to the end of November.

Thankfully, the rains were late in many regions, but even with this, confusion relating to eligibility criteria, and replacing old with new cooperatives, have compromised farming schedules for thousands of small scale farmers.

No amount of boasting or lobbying by Alpha Commodities and UCF can change the fact that this programme was mishandled last season.

There are also lessons to be learnt about the negative impact of politics and cronyism on this programme, which has resulted in the Ministry of Agriculture announcing that low grain yields are expected this season.

Flooding has just compounded the government-instigated factors responsible for poor farm production this season.

And the tragedy is that these self inflicted problems had one simple cure then, and it is the same today – just open up the fertiliser tender to fair competition by all who have interest, and have built capacity to procure, deliver and distribute, and are able to offer competitive prices based on international market conditions and Zambian realities.


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