HomeOpinionFresh exports: It always ends in tears

Fresh exports: It always ends in tears

By Kudakwashe Gwabanayi

LAST month Zimbabwe woke up to refreshing news of opening up of trade with the United Kingdom. Many people were surprised that fresh produce was not on the list.

Well, this is because despite the souring of relations between Zimbabwe and the UK, fresh produce exports never stopped. The UK continued to rely on Zimbabwe for peas, baby marrow, extra fine beans, baby corn, sweet potato, tender stem broccoli, bird’s eye chillies, blueberries, cucumbers, butternuts among other things after the disputed land reform programme and subsequent sanctions.

So for those in the know, there was no need to list fresh produce on last month’s list because it is something that has been ongoing.

While the British consumers continued to enjoy fresh produce, especially mange tout peas, the same cannot be said for the farmers who were sweating it out in Zimbabwe over the years. For some reason, there was a lot of paperwork that one needed to take their produce abroad.

One needs to have a certificate of incorporation, CR14, Tax clearance, Agriculture Marketing Authority licence and a BP number.

As if this is not enough, you are also required to have a phytosanitary inspection certificate, export licence and nursery licence. After getting all these, you still need to go to your bank to get a CB1 which the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe uses to track your income from your exports. This may cost about US$1 000 depending on one’s public relations.

This is just paperwork to get you started. We have not talked about the seed, fertilisers and chemicals, which are prescribed annually by “the market” and usually cost US$1500 per hectare depending on one’s crop of choice.

Now onto the fields, the export farmer is expected to have Global Good Agricultural Practice infrastructure to support the production of the crops.

These include footbaths to disinfect workers as they get into fields, protective clothing for the workers, cold rooms to keep the produce fresh and a grading house to package the produce as the recipient is very strict on standards.

Then there is the issue of transporting the produce to the airport which for obvious reasons cannot be done by a ramshackle vehicle.

But the biggest headache for the farmer was, and still remains, the freight charges that are out of the reach of many farmers. On average, fresh produce is charged US$3 per kg for freight to Europe. For the farmer to make a meaningful income, one must export at least 2 000kg, which means you need US$6 000 upfront to get your produce on the plane.

To circumvent all these requirements, many farmers have resorted to sending their produce through a third party, and this is where many have paid dearly.

There are so many spine-chilling stories, full of sorrow and horror, of how farmers were never paid a cent after exporting their crops. The lucky ones get paid some money so that they bring in more produce but the bulk of farmers who used a third party have been left counting their losses and failing to pay their workers.

Many were left with huge debts; while others lost their properties that they had mortgaged as they embarked on export produce projects

The middlemen, or merchants, use the same modus operandi on farmers where they belittle them and instil fear that they are unable to meet the freight costs.

The farmer is then made to sign a contract that does not state when the merchant takes full responsibility of the crop. For example, if a farmer gives  the middleman produce, then the merchant keeps it for 10 days before transporting and then it shrivels, is that the farmer’s fault? Or, in the worst case scenario, if the aeroplane crashes before reaching its destination, is the farmer not entitled to his money for the produce?

The merchants always come up with funny stories to avoid paying the farmers.

In some instances, the produce never leaves the farms, as the merchants give false market hopes only to disappear on the 11th hour leaving farmers stranded with fresh produce like the sweet potato that is used to make supplementary milk  for babies in Europe and is not consumed locally.

While Agricultural Marketing Authority (AMA) and ZimTrade have tried to warn farmers against these contracts, very few have taken heed of the advice and have found themselves in a tight spot with no one to blame but themselves. In most cases, it is the new farmers that are tempted by the prospects of earning foreign currency but end up leaking wounds.

Even local producers have also been left leaking their wounds by unscrupulous dealers who act as merchants. These are notorious at tobacco auction floors, cotton selling points and even at Mbare Musika. Other well-known companies like Brandfresh and Favco have gone under after losing the farmers’ confidence as they failed to pay them on time.

There is a need for the government to come up with rules that can help farmers to get recourse in the event that they have been scammed. In addition, the government must also open a one-stop office for farmers so that they can register for exports.

Those that want to try exports must also ask around for information so that they do not become victims of fraud. There are a few individuals and companies that have been able to turn the leaf in exports and will be happy to share their experiences.

  • Gwabanayi is a practising journalist and a farmer in his own right. — 0772 865 703 or gwabanayi@gmail.com

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