Politics

Dearth of Foreign Currency Torpedoes Zimbabwe Law on Fortifying Foods

 

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Donemore Ngwaru shows the equipment that would be used in maize fortification at the National Foods Limited milling plant in Harare, Zimbabwe. The mill has yet to start fortifying its products because it lacks the foreign currency to buy micronutrients abroad. Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe

A new law took effect in July in Zimbabwe mandating food producers to fortify their offerings with micronutrients, ostensibly to combat malnutrition and related health problems. However, companies lack the foreign currency to purchase the micronutrients – only available abroad – so the government is issuing waivers, and lawsuits are already challenging the new rule.

HARARE, ZIMBABWE – A fortification machine sits idle at the National Foods Holdings Limited factory, one of the country’s largest food-production factories.

Introduced in 2016 as part of the Food and Food Standards Act, a new law mandates that staple food items like flour and maize meal be fortified with micronutrients to combat the country’s high rates of stunted growth and malnourishment. However, since the law went into effect in July 2017, at least 15 factories have received waivers allowing them to temporarily forgo the fortification process because they lack the foreign currency to buy the micronutrients.

None of the micronutrients required by the new law are manufactured in Zimbabwe. When the country adopted bond notes last year to combat an ongoing cash shortage, it limited purchasing power for citizens and companies alike. The notes, which trade at equal to the U.S. dollar within the country, now make up more than half the currency circulating in the country, according to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.

According to a statement from the Zimbabwe Nutrition Association, sugar, cooking oil, maize meal and wheat flour are on the list of foods that are now required to be fortified by micronutrients, including iron and vitamin A, but there is no evidence that any mill in Zimbabwe has begun fortifying its products. Global Press Journal did identify one oil-pressing company that had begun fortifying its product with vitamins A and D, in line with the legal requirements.

Several health surveys, including the 2012 Zimbabwe National Micronutrient Survey, were used as justification to pass the new law. The 2012 survey suggested that a lack of micronutrients greatly contributes to stunted growth, poor health and impaired development, which largely affect women of child-bearing age and children. The survey found that 72 percent of children and 61 percent of women are iron-deficient, and stunted growth was found among approximately 30 percent of children in Zimbabwe.

Tafadzwa Musarara, chairman of the Grain Millers’ Association of Zimbabwe, says that if the government of Zimbabwe is concerned with the health of its citizens, then it should provide the micronutrients.

“Nutrients deficiency is a sickness like HIV [or] cancer, and that responsibility is with the government – not with us. They should be buying these [nutrients] and giving them to us for free to put into the products, if consumers agree to it,” he says.

Nutrients deficiency is a sickness like HIV [or] cancer, and that responsibility is with the government – not with us.

Even if foreign currency were available, he adds, fortifying these basic foods would place a heavy cost on the country’s factories. Musarara says the industry needs about $7 million to purchase equipment and another $500,000 to train staff to carry out the work, and the law makes only the producers responsible for fortifying their foods.

Chipo Nheta, managing executive of the maize division of National Foods Limited, agrees.

He says the company appreciates the government addressing issues of malnutrition, but the firm also is yet to fortify its products because of the shortage of foreign currency.

“We need government support in terms of forex availability to purchase the equipment and the [nutrients] and to also waive [import] duty on the two items, because most of these products are imported, and they want cash upfront for payments,” he says.

Nheta says the cost of the nutrients adds an additional $3 per ton for maize. Company projections suggest that they will mill 120,000 tons of maize from July 2017 to June 2018, meaning they would need an additional $360,000 to purchase the nutrients.

A similar measure to fortify food came up in 1999 but failed because customers rejected fortified products, Nheta says.

The recent lawsuit from Bulawayo residents suggests that a similar reaction might be brewing.

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Tonderayi Matsungo, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Nutrition Association, argues that food fortification is necessary to curb malnutrition throughout the country.

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Beyond the companies’ inability to pay for the required nutrients, lawsuits challenging the law have been filed against the government by the Grain Millers’ Association of Zimbabwe and by the Bulawayo United Residents Association. The suits allege that the requirement makes unreasonable assumptions about the health of all Zimbabweans and about the responsibilities of food producers in the country. The Grain Millers’ Association has exhausted its lobbying options and has turned to the courts to strike down the law, Musarara says.

Gerald Gwinji, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, says the food fortification law was intended to make Zimbabweans healthier.

“The move to fortify food in Zimbabwe is based on scientific evidence through research conducted, and we will continue doing such research, which informs policy change,” he says.

In response to producers saying that they do not have the foreign currency to buy micronutrients, Gwinji wrote in an email to Global Press Journal that there were established “procedures and provisions to access foreign currency,” but he did not give details on the procedures. He added that since July, at least 15 companies have received waivers due to lack of availability of foreign currency.

Representatives from the Finance Ministry did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Representatives of three milling companies, including some of the largest in the country, confirmed that none of their firms had started to fortify their products, for lack of foreign currency. The oil-pressing firm Surface Wilmar started fortifying cooking oil in July, but an official there says they too are struggling to get the foreign currency needed to continue the process.

Still, the law has advocates outside the government.

Tonderayi Matsungo, secretary-general for the Zimbabwe Nutrition Association, a nonprofit professional group of nutritionists, says the law is a welcome move, because citizens have nutrition problems that must be addressed.

“Food fortification is not the only intervention needed, but it is part of the big picture of interventions to address the problem,” he says.