By Hicks Sikazwe
Rampant smuggling of maize meal from Zambia’s Coperbelt into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has erupted along the porous border.
Smugglers have devised sophisticated means of carting goods into the vast country using bush paths and roads.
Unless the criminal activity is stopped, there was a threat of shortage of mealie in the country, some worry residents told African Business.com in interview.
Zambian authorities at the weekend intercepted thousands of bags of mealie meal (or maize meal) hidden in five well secured containerized trucks .
The contraband was blocked by a combined security anti-smuggling team as the goods were about to be ferried into the DRC using the Kasumbalesa border post.
“The situation is getting out of hand because smugglers have established illegal routes they are now using to take goods into DRC”, a leader of a security team at the border post told government officials who on Saturday visited Kasumbalesa post the entry point into Katanga province of the former Zaire.
After the bags were confiscated they were whisked to a police station in Chililabombwe for custody.
Zambia has in the last three to four years fallen victim of smuggling of maize and mealie meal into neighbouring countries.
Recent successive drought stretches have caused severe food shortages forcing families in many countries surviving on alms and donations from relief food organizations.
In the entire Southern African region which has been hit by subsequent drought, Zambia has been the only country that has managed to have reasonable maize harvests.
That has exposed the nation. this month celebrating its 52nd year of independence from Britain, to smuggling bands of traders seeking the grain to resell in neighbouring countries desperate for food.
Maize is a common staple food of most populations in Southern, Eastern , Central Africa and even beyond.
It is consumed straight as a grain, either roasted or cooked, but the bulky of it is ground into a powder called mealie/maize meal and used for preparing a main meal known in Zambia as Nshima.
The maize deficit in the region has therefore put pressure on Zambia’s limited maize and mealie meal stocks which have fallen victim to smugglers often taking the grain into Malawi, DRC, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and even South Africa.
Last April a related exercise authorities in Zambia conducted sporadic checks in border areas and impounded huge stocks of maize or mealie meal which were about to be smuggled into neighbouring countries.
The April smuggling caused severe shortage of maize forcing the price of mealie meal in the country sharply going up as the commodity could only be accessed on the black market.
To arrest the situation, the Government of Zambia slapped a temporary ban on maize exports, or its products, not only to contain smuggling but to prevent the grain from running out completely leaving the inhabitants of the landlocked country without the staple food.
Taking advantage of the situation government has stepped up efforts to promote agriculture through an ambitious diversification programme to increase food production.
The country heavily dependent on copper as the key foreign exchange earner wants to front farming into a robust industry.
Last year as commodity prices collapsed in China dealing a heavy blow on copper revenues, thousands of people lost their jobs especially on the Copperbelt.
A lot more allied industries that survived on the production of the red metal were seriously affected too.
But the government quickly moved in and secured land from local authorities and was allocated to former miners.
The government further waived some taxes to allow for reasonable packages.
The land allocated to the sacked workers was meant for agricultural development where the families could survival on.
Alongside the above programme Zambia has embarked on another ambitious irrigation and damming exercise to provide enough water supply even during drought.
Irrigation systems will ensure consistent efforts to grow food throughout the year without having to be disrupted by lack of rainfall.
With such programmes on the cards the government hopes to produce enough food to feed its 15 million population and also export the surplus to earn supplement foreign exchange and reduce drastically, the smuggling of maize and other foodstuffs into neighbouring countries.
In the past experts have suggested the need for Zambia to work out more measures to curb smuggling.
They say the country should apart from formalizing maize exports especially to the usually yawning market of the DRC, the nation could also set up shops along the border.
The shops, it has been suggested could either sell the goods in foreign exchange or offer highly competitive prices.
At the moment individual traders have set up maize and meal outlets at border posts. But since the exercise is not regulated, the traders have often been accused of causing food shortage back home.
They have been accused of buying off all stocks in local shops and transporting the lot to border areas where the price was double or even three times to that offered inland.
Hicks Sikazwe is a Zambian journalist who holds a Masters Degree in Mass Communications from the University of Leicester in the UK and a BA in Communication Science from the University of South Africa, Pretoria. He is a former Deputy Editor in Chief of Times of Zambia, the country’s oldest daily newspaper, where he worked for almost 30 years. He has written widely locally and abroad He has practiced journalism for close to 40 years. His MA thesis was on Media and Democracy.