Mtolo Phiri Arrogance May Lead To Another Fertiliser Tender Blunder



By John Phiri
When Minister of Agriculture Mtolo Phiri gave his Ministerial Statement on procurement of fertiliser for Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP) for 2023/24 season, two issues of significance emerged.

The first one was the magnitude of his personal transformation. From the self-effacing man who brought vast agricultural cooperatives experience, and a non-political touch to the job, the Mtolo Phiri on display on Thursday March, 16, 2023, came across as an over-confident and petulant politician who seemed more concerned about cutting down opposition questioners, oblivious to the fact that the same concerns members of parliament were raising are also occupying the minds of members of the public.

He came across as downright arrogant when he declared, against all recent evidence to the contrary, that, in fact, the United Party for National Development (UPND) government has done better in its fertiliser procurement, delivery and distribution programme, than ever before!

If this claim was true, why did Phiri’s boss, President Hakainde Hichilema, apologise to Zambian small scale farmers for his government’s management of the fertiliser tender for 2022/23 farming season and the severely delayed distribution of farming inputs?

Clearly, Mtolo Phiri has lost touch with the realities of this very important portfolio he has been privileged to manage, and now wants to feed the nation with fiction.

To some questions from opposition members of parliament, Mtolo Phiri simply gave one word answers, not wanting to give any elaboration to clarify matters the opposition members of parliament were raising.

The second issue was that his Ministerial Statement could become famous more for what it omitted than for its actual content, which was, at best, left scanty for a purpose.

A word of caution to the current Minister of Agriculture is that he must bear in mind that all the chaos, manipulation of tenders and exclusionary tactics that have been perpetrated in this sector since the UPND came into government, will forever have his face plastered on them.

On the display he gave in parliament on that day, Phiri has made himself willingly pliant to these machinations and can no longer claim innocence.

The message he delivered through his written Ministerial Statement, and his responses to follow up questions, was simple – we have deiced to take this route and will not budge, regardless of the concerns anyone will raise.

This is a dangerous path for any government to take because governments carry their populations through consensus and operating within the rule of law, both of which have been endangered by the UPND government’s stance.

The key substance of Phiri’s Ministerial Statement was that the procurement of fertiliser for the 2023/24 farming season will be done using two procurement methods, namely, open international bidding for Urea fertiliser, and Direct Bidding for Compound D fertiliser.

According to Phiri, both of these procurement methods are allowed under the Zambia Public Procurement Authority Act, implying that his government had line up its actions perfectly with the specific provisions governing these two chosen methods.

The Minister of Agriculture informed the nation, through parliament, that the Open International Bidding will help his government receive competitive prices for Urea fertiliser which is not manufactured locally.

Phiri also told parliament that the government had decided to “Direct Bid” local manufacturers, United Capital Fertiliser (UCF) and Nitrogen Chemicals (NCZ) to supply 77,087.55 metric tonnes and 43,292. 70 metric tonnes of Compound D fertiliser, respectively.

The truth is that once again, Phiri and his team do not seem to have read and comprehended the provisions of this Act sufficiently, or they had already decided what they would do and only later did they realise and begin their poor attempt they had to make their decisions fit into the ZPPA Act.

Bangweulu Constituency Member of Parliament Anthony Kasandwe cottoned on to this matter and raised a very significant issue.
Unfortunately, his question and many follow ups by other opposition MPs were not addressed because, as has become characteristic in this parliament, when the Executive is cornered on a matter, presiding officers spring to their rescue, and the public is left hungering for more information.

The question this opposition Member of Parliament raised was whether the government had actually complied with the provisions of the ZPPA Act in the choice of Direct Bidding in this instance.

When the MP read the provision relating to this matter, it became clear that there was a problem between what Phiri said his government had deiced to do and how the ZPPA Act defined Direct Bidding.

Part V of the ZPPA Act Number 8 of 2020, beginning with Section 37, right up to Section 47, define the full range of procurement methods than can be employed, and specifies the reasons or conditions under which each one of them may be employed.

The Bangweulu MP quoted Part V, Section 46, (2) which provides for Direct Bidding, as contained in the ZPPA Act number 8 of 2020:
“Direct Bidding may be used where –
(a) the goods, works or non-consulting services are only available from a single source and no reasonable alternative or substitute exists;

(b) due to an emergency, there is urgent need for the goods, works or non-consulting services making it impractical to use other methods of procurement because of the time involved in using those methods;

(c) additional goods, works or non-consulting services must be procured from the same source because of the need for compatibility, standardisation or continuity;

(d) an existing contract could be extended for additional goods, works or non-consulting services of a similar nature and no advantage could be obtained by further competition; or

(e) the estimated value of the goods, works or non-consulting services does not exceed the prescribed threshold.

These provisions of the ZPPA Act are unambiguous, therefore the concern that was raised by the Bangweulu MP were genuine, suggesting that the government could be in violation.

Minister Phiri told parliament that the government had decided to Direct Bid two companies, United Capital Fertiliser and Nitrogen Chemicals, whereas the Act said Direct Bidding applies where goods and services are available from only a single source.

The Act says the objective for Direct Bidding is to achieve timely and efficient procurement, where the circumstances or value of the procurement do not justify or permit the use of competition.

The now famous “deliberate positive discrimination in favour of local suppliers”, which Phiri intoned for the choice of UCF and NCZ, is absent from these provisions.

For even when the word “circumstances” cannot permit the insertion of the special circumstances that have been advanced as justification for deliberate positive discrimination in favour of local suppliers or manufacturers.

Why is this so?

This is because the “circumstances” or environment suggested within these provisions for Direct Bidding suggest that these have to satisfy the definition of “emergency”.

All these are serious matters that Phiri should have endeavoured to address when the Bangweulu MP brought the provisions of the ZPPA Act to his attention.

Unfortunately, all that Phiri said, in response to this apparent violation of government’s choice of two suppliers using Direct Bidding, was that “before coming up with its position the government gathered teams of experts which included those from the Zambia Public Procurement Authority (ZPPA).

Well, then it should have been easy for Phiri to respond to the Bangweulu MP with the “expert advice” that explained away this possible violation.

The fact that he did not offer any plausible explanation simply means he had none. Evidently Phiri and team did not see any possible violation in their reading of the straightforward provisions for Direct Bidding in the ZPPA Act.

The other matter that Phiri should have taken seriously was raised by Lumezi MP Munir Zulu, who used the example of courts of law, which, in certain situations, are able to “move the Court” to a scene of a crime for verification of evidence they consider critical to an outcome.

“Why can’t the Honourable Minister of Agriculture move this House to United Capital Fertiliser and Nitrogen Chemicals of Zambia, to verify whether they indeed have capacity to deliver the full requirement of Compound D fertiliser that have been allocated to them?”

Zulu, and many other Zambians are doubtful about NCZ capacity, based on reports that the company had some difficulties manufacturing, delivering and distribution the fertiliser it was contracted to supply for the last farming season, and had to be “rescued” by other suppliers.

There are doubts too about UCF, whose local manufacturing operation only commenced last year, and was also reported to have sourced some of the product it supplied from other companies to fulfil its contract.

What was Phiri’s response:

“There is nothing to stop you Honorable Member from going there personally and verifying the state of the art operation at UCF and the work at plant at NCZ”. We have come to tell the nation what methods we are going to use for procurement of fertiliser for the 2023/24 farming season. This is what we are going to do, and it will not change.”

Such arrogance suggests that Mtolo Phiri has been instructed on what to do and, whether the method is a violation of the procurement provisions or not, his job is to push it through.

But this is hardly the path of efficient management of this tender. It could import on-going chaos were some of the aggrieved suppliers to challenge the government. And the coming farming season, like the previous one, could experience its own debilitating delays in supply of inputs.


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