A survey by MakanDay has shown that cooperatives lack capacity to trigger the new government’s local level development agenda and play a role in helping push the country’s decentralisation plan.

In 2008, there were over 16,100 registered cooperatives in Zambia, with over 4,200 having been registered in the previous five years, according to a study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

MakanDay Centre for Investigative Journalism has established that cooperatives are now being used as crucibles for theft of fertilizer and seed under the government-backed Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP).

Thefts in cooperatives

Experts say such rampant thefts of farming inputs deprive recipients - mostly poor farmers access to subsidised farming inputs.

Several cases of theft, involving mostly government extension workers, cooperative leaders and political party supporters have been recorded in Eastern Province. The thefts have occurred in at least five of the 14 districts in the province, affecting helpless small-scale farmers.

MakanDay has received various complaints of theft and mismanagement of the fertilizer distribution programme under FISP in Chipangali, Mambwe, Chadiza, Chasefu and Katete districts.

Cooperating to steal from the poor farmers

Government workers who collude with leaders of some cooperatives have made a fortune out of the FISP by stealing and concealing fertilizer and seed meantf or poor farmers.

For example, in Chipangali, police recovered more than eighty (80) 50 kg bags of fertilizer and arrested Fredrick Mwansa, the District Agricultural Coordinating Officer, who was linked to the theft. The bags were for Chang’ombe Cooperative in Sisinje Ward in the district.

On 20 February this year, Acting Eastern Province Police Commanding Officer Davis Simwanza, confirmed the arrest of a Camp Extension Officer in the the same Ward, Twambo Moonga and five others for allegedly stealing 139 50 kg bags of fertilizer under the FISP.

Police also recovered over K41,500 cash suspected to be earnings from the FISP crimes.

Members’ cry

In Chasefu, membership for Kachipe Cooperative complained of not receiving a fair share from the fertilizer that was sent to the district. Some of the farmers said they were getting a tin of fertilizer, while others were receiving two bags, instead of the full pack of six 50 kg bags per farmer.

Another farmer in the same cooperative, Kondwani Ngwira, said cooperative leaders failed to account for 12 bags that went missing, forcing some of them to share a few bags.

But in Chadiza, a new pattern of theft is emerging, where members of the governing United Party for National Development (UPND), working with some workers of Neria Investments – a fertilizer distribution company are forcing farmers to exchange bags of fertilizer with favourable services at the storage shed.

The information was given to MakanDay by a confidential source, who says he has witnessed farmers being forced to give up bags of fertilizers in exchange for a better and quicker service from officials.

MakanDay interviewed several farmers in Chadiza who revealed how some UPND cadres had taken over the government-backed fertilizer distribution programme in the district.

Isaac Banda, the chairperson for Tilime Cooperative told MakanDay, his cooperative was asked by the shed manager to leave seven bags of fertilizer out of the 72 bags in order for them to skip the queue when collecting fertilizer at the shed.

“They said that because they have pushed us to quickly get our fertilizer before our time of collection, we should leave seven bags of fertilizer and considering that time was running out and our crops needed fertilizer, we accepted to leave the bags”, he said.

Tivwalenji Phiri, a farmer and chairperson for Chikomba Women’s Club confirmed being forced to contribute five bags of top-dressing fertilizers to be shared by “crooked” officials.

Another farmer, Christina Phiri, the Secretary of Chitipi Cooperative 'swore under her breathe' never to collect fertilizer for her cooperative again, fearing attacks from cadres and insults from members of her cooperative.

“I was insulted by the members for accepting to leave the five bags and the farmers who did not collect want their fertilizer, so government should find away of removing cadres at the shed to allow us collect the inputs freely”, said Mrs. Phiri.

Government turns a blind eye

Chadiza District Commissioner Raphael, Fasten Matowa Phiri said he is aware of farmers’ complaints of harassment by UPND cadres. He also confirmed that some farmers have been to his office to protest against misconduct by some officials.

He blamed the farmers for failing to identify UPND members who are behind the fertilizer crime syndicate.

“I have addressed the farmers at the (storage) shed and I have challenged them to come forward if they see any such illegality, but to my disappointment the farmers will never say anything about this,” he said.

Mr Phiri said complaints by farmers often come after the fertilizer has been distributed.

The UPND Provincial youth chairman, Lyson Nyirenda said he is aware of reports from Chadiza of some of the party youths’ involvement in theft of fertilizer for poor farmers.

“I don’t think this is the time we must continue having people with criminal minds in the party and all I want to encourage the people of Chadiza, especially those farmers who were forced to give away their fertilizer to the cadres to report the matter to the police…,” said Mr Nyirenda.

Traditional leader adds his voice

Chief Chanje of the Chewa people in Chipangali District is disappointed with agricultural officers who are involved in theft of farming inputs.

“It is unfortunate to see senior government officials being found in such situations instead of them helping government deliver the inputs to the poor farmers,” said Chief Chanje.

Money in wrong hands

Government has placed cooperatives at the centre of its economic transformation and decentralisation agenda and a huge chunk of the K 25.7 million Constituency Development Fund (CDF) is targeted at them.

Although the CDF provides an opportunity for cooperatives to improve their farming, it does not guarantee success. The MakanDay investigations has shown that some recipients are known to access subsidised fertilizer from the FISP, and then sell it for other uses.

The cooperative movement in Zambia is generally weak, largely because many cooperatives are either dormant or non-performing, according to the ILO study.

“Most cooperatives have faded away from the public limelight since reform of government policy in the early 1990s,” said the report.