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Are Agro-Dealers Trustworthy?

Throughout history, smallholder farming has been considered to be the engine of growth as far as food security is concerned in Malawi. The industry has been contributing 80% to economic growth of the country.

But for Mercy John of traditional authority Saimon in mwanza district, smallholder farming has not been as successful as she thought could be since she joined the fray five years ago. Why?

“I have not been harvesting enough to see me through for a year. Actually, I have been a perpetual victim to the substandard and counterfeit farm products besides the unreliable rainfall,” says the disgusted Mercy.

Mercy said the other time she thought she had purchased bags of fertilizer only to discover it was some sort of river sand mixing with terrazzo, coloured with a gray substance she was not even sure of.

“Sometimes I found that the seed do not germinate at all. And when I happen to at least harvest enough, the problem comes with post-harvest. These selfish- agro-dealers make their own pesticide formulations; give inaccurate instructions on what they sell; while charging exorbitant prices,” she says.

According to other farmers, the malpractice ranges from writing of expiry dates with ball pens, rubbing of expiry dates and putting new fake dates.

Other anomalies included removal of original wrappers or labels and replacing them with counterfeit labels with forwarded expiry dates and packaging of products without paper labels.

These anomalies contradict provision of section 35 of the consumer protection law which says that “a manufacture, producer, assembler or packer shall clearly indicate his name, postal and physical address, the contents, ingredients and the expiry date of the products in legible, distinct characters and in a contrasting colour to the background colour.”

The farmers interviewed disclosed that agro-dealers offer wrong information of the product deliberately on the pretext that they make more money when farmers come back to buy the products.

They said the shrewd counterfeiters get the original company papers whereby they put in their fake and substandard products for sale.

It is evidently true that most farmers in the country live below the poverty line. This forces them to buy these fake or unreliable farm inputs right in their villages.

But seed companies plying their trade under the seed trade association of Malawi (STAM) assures farmers that of a reliable and sustained supply of certified seed on the market.

“Only the use of certified seed guarantees food security and the role of the organisation is to promote use of certified seed and ensure consistent and reliable supply of certified seed in the country,” says the Association’s Business Development Officer Supply Chisi.

He assures the government that seed companies will ensure smooth implementation of the farm input subsidy programme (FISP) by warranting timely distribution of certified seed.

Under Fisp, only improved certified seed producing companies are involved in the supply of seed component of the programme. The companies involved also take disciplinary measures on seed as well as producing timely update to government on how much seed has been distributed countrywide each week for monitoring purposes of the programme.

“We make sure that there is sanity in the seed industry by enabling the availability of certified seed on the market and also producing certified seed that suit different ecological zones responding to climate change,” he said

Among others, Stam was formed in 2004 to combat fake seed and illegal substandard seed multiplication, promote use of improved certified seed to achieve high productivity for food and cash as well as ensuring consistency and reliability in the supply of quality seed to farmers.

Felix Jumbe, a well-known agriculturalist, said there is a need for government to come up with policies that deliberately regulate the agro-dealers so that they are not considered as cheats.

“Indeed , when people talk about food security what immediately comes to mind is use of chemical fertilizer and hybrid seeds, however, if these are counterfeited then we can’t talk of food security. Access to information and capacity building perhaps are the biggest need right now to help farmers,” he said.
According to jumbe, farmers are not reaping enough from their investments which makes it difficult to attract more actors into the field.

Rural Market Development Trust (RUMARK) says it will start working with the ministry of Agriculture to process accreditation of small-scale agro-dealers.
The managing director of the trust Dr Godfrey Chapola says the accreditations are aimed at directing rural farmers to efficient and reliable agro-dealers.

According to Chapola, only those trained agro-dealers would be accreditated by the ministry.” Such agro-dealers are very important as they act as middlemen between rural farmers and big agro-dealers and they help farmers to access expensive farm inputs by selling them at a reduced quantity which needs little amount of money.

“There are some unscrupulous traders who are stealing from farmers by selling them bags of terrazzo duping them that its fertilizer. Some sell the small-holder farmers expired farm chemical and seeds just because farmers don’t know reliable traders.

“So the accreditation of the agro-dealers will guide farmers to reliable traders who will also be assisting in chemical handling and giving right choices of seeds as the traders will be trained by us,” Chapola stated.

Principle secretary in the ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Dr Erica Maganga says the problem is that most small-scale seed producers do not produce more tonnes of seeds, hence the shortage which eventually lead to counterfeit.

She says it was imperative for seed companies to work towards increasing smallholder farmer’s access to high yielding seeds of staple foods such as maize, cassava, millet and sorghum.

“There are a number of other factors such as crops grown or preferred, soils, and other agro-ecological conditions. Of-course in some areas, poor soil fertility is not necessarily the major challenge in food production. There are also other factors related to water on frequency of dry spells,” she says.

Maganga adds; “in such cases, the seed inputs may not solve local challenges in food production. This ultimately leads to low impact of the seed inputs as there is corresponding reduction in terms of expected food crop outputs.”

President for Southern region Agro-dealers Association (SRADA) a Mkwate said frequent stock outs of the inputs due to suppliers poor distribution make agro-dealers to start making or supplying fake products.

“Well, we should not only be focusing on agro-dealers but also we should focus on the manufactures or suppliers. Are they real or counterfeiters as well? Sufficient and reliable stocks as well as proper monitoring mechanism can help to reduce the malpractice,” he said recently when he was launching the association.

Just in 2012/2013 growing season, cases of counterfeit fertilizer, mixed with river sand were rife in the country with Opticem fertilizer Malawi limited caught in the act.
Parliament enacted the consumer protection law which also provides for the establishment of the consumer protection council and subordinate court where consumers can seek redress if affected by any unfair trading practice.

However, despite the malpractice being punishable with the law, currently there are no clear penalties for unscrupulous traders, a situation that lead the practice to go on.

On the other hand, many small-scale farmers are reportedly unaware of the development due to poor awareness and high levels of illiteracy.