Minister Sir, reputation is more important than tomatoes

AGRICULTURE PICTUREEditorial
The hasty and bombastic announcement that Government would, with immediate effect, withdraw all import permits for agricultural produce was needlessly heavy-handed and has undone Chinamasa’s laudable efforts to re-brand Zimbabwe as a reliable and predictable partner.

Government went on to explain that it would now proceed to re-evaluate each permit, establishing the deficit – if any – and then reissue permits as appropriate.

No suggestion was given as to what affected businesses should do in the meantime.
The obvious question is whether or not it is possible to ascertain which products are in short supply in Zimbabwe without cancelling permits. It clearly is.

One then wonders why it was considered necessary to disrupt business activity before carrying out a relatively straightforward and simple task that did not require such an excessive intervention.

If it is discovered that we are indeed in need of imported grapefruit will Government compensate businesses for loss of income or it is simply tough luck, you’re lucky to have the permit anyway?

If our hope is to inspire confidence this is certainly not how to go about it. Even the most benevolent investor would not tolerate such a capricious and clearly unnecessary abuse of state power.

If it is discovered that we are in short supply of carrots it is doubtful that they will grow overnight. It will take time for producers to build up a reliable supply. It is, therefore, difficult to understand the motives of those who championed this disruptive action. They are certainly not helping anyone.

It is not in dispute that local farmers must be protected. It is not in dispute that investors will only start funding local agriculture if they are compelled to do so by policy. All these are unobjectionable propositions.

What business cannot understand is why the Ministry of Agriculture did not quietly undertake its audit and establish which produce was being produced in sufficient quantities and then forge an appropriate policy.

Even if it was ascertained that apples were in ample supply it would be equally reckless to immediately cancel all permits for the importation of apples.

Such unpredictable conduct suggests unreliability and callous disregard for the losses that legitimate business could suffer.
Businesses made investments on the strength of those permits and one cannot simply just cancel them. Well you can but you should not. Whilst the affected businesses possibly have no way to retaliate such actions send a clear message to would-be investors that Zimbabwe is a place of sudden and inconsiderate change, a place that should be rightly avoided.

Those who had received legitimate permits should be allowed to carry on trading and given time, measured in years, to readjust their business models. Would this be ideal?
Possibly not but it is a necessary compromise in the interests of protecting something more precious than tomatoes – our reputation.

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