‘Vendors exploit us,’ claim covid-19 relief beneficiaries

Some farmers who received relief vouchers are choosing not to use them rather than pay inflated prices

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Small-scale and communal farmers allege that vendors chosen by government to honour covid-19 vouchers are putting exorbitant mark-ups on the prices of inputs that farmers can buy with the government relief.

Farmers have expressed their frustrations at the way that the R500 million worth of covid-19 relief vouchers from the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development has been rolled out.

Some farmers have even gone so far as saying that they regret ever having applied for the relief, which is meant to enable small-scale farmers to keep producing amid the disruption caused by the novel coronavirus lockdown regulations.

READ MORE: Covid-19 relief 15 036 small-scale farmers made the cut

Beneficiaries of the fund approached Food For Mzansi to raise their concerns about the vendors that were chosen to honour the vouchers, some saying the process of accessing input supplies has been “harrowing and confusing”.

‘A tray of 200 tomato seedlings is quoted at R648 at ONE listed supplier. He has rather opted to stick to his (OLD) supplier who charges R160 for the same seedlings.’

The relief scheme was announced by minister Thoko Didiza in April 2020 and promised to alleviate the struggles of small-scale producers amid the global pandemic. Less than 15 000 small-scale producers were successful in their applications for funding, and R500 million in support vouchers were distributed amongst the beneficiaries of the relief fund.

Most farmers received a total of R50 000 in the form of vouchers that can be used exclusively at the input vendors listed by government.

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The rolling out of the relief, however, proved complicated due to the process of verifying beneficiaries. As a result, the department announced that it would extend voucher validity until the end of July 2020 to mitigate delays in verification and supply woes.

READ MORE: Farmers breathe sigh of relief as covid 19 vouchers validity extended

The role of these vendors have become a source of frustration for the farmers.

Vendors were invited in April to apply as service providers to honour the vouchers. Lists of designated local suppliers, including a set price list of inputs, were distributed amongst qualifying farmers, Didza’s spokesperson, Reggie Ngcobo, confirms.

However, farmers say the list of vendors and suppliers selected by the department is limiting. Some beneficiaries have accused vendors of not adhering to the stipulated price list of inputs.

A vegetable farmer from Tarlton, on the West Rand of Gauteng, says that feeding the nation amid a pandemic has been challenging enough without adding frustrating vendors to the equation. He has asked to remain anonymous for fear of victimisation. He has accused the department of “selling farmers’ dreams.”

‘It is a mess, the service providers are killing the farmers.’

“What the department told us and what we are getting are two completely different pictures,” he says.

The vegetable farmer received a total of R38 000 in relief vouchers, but says that service providers have added a 400% mark-up on the price of seedlings. Before the lockdown he would be quoted R486 for a tray of 200 parthenon broccoli at a non-listed supplier in Brits in North West. He can now buy the same tray of seedlings at a price of R742.50 from a government listed vendor.

Buying according to the list of service providers has become costly and forced him to buy out of pocket as he would rather buy inputs at his former supplier, he says. “Those mark-up prices are not even good quality seedlings; they are the rejected varieties. For example, peppers that you would usually buy for R200, they are now charging us R400 to R600.”

He has raised the issue with the Gauteng department of agriculture. “It is a mess, the service providers are killing the farmers,” he added in frustration.

LISTEN: Exclusive covid-19 highlighted fault lines of sa’s past-Didiza

Another farmer, a 52-year-old vegetable farmer in Randfontein in Gauteng, says he was overjoyed when he was selected as a beneficiary of the relief scheme. He also asked to remain anonymous.

Under lockdown it has been difficult to sustain his 13.6-hectare farm producing peppers and coriander, he says. He received his vouchers in June, but was shocked when he wanted to purchase inputs and seedlings from the nearest listed supplier in the area and found the prices much higher than usual.

He requested a quotation from a supplier in Mabopane who has been listed as a vendor by the department. A tray of 200 tomato seedlings is quoted at R648 at the listed supplier. He has rather opted to stick to his supplier in Muldersdrift who charges R160 for the same quantity of tomato seedlings.

“I am so stressed, I had to use some of my own funds to cover some of the inputs I needed,” he says. He has since looked at accessing inputs with his own funding at an alternative supplier.

Food For Mzansi also received an anonymous voice note via WhatsApp from a man claiming to be an elderly farmer from Rustenburg. He too does not want to risk revealing his identity because he fears being victimised.

He says that he has been forced to travel 20km from his farm to the nearest vendor. This has caused him great distress. He alleges that some of the vendors selected by the department supply inputs like clothing and not seedlings and fertiliser.

O, Jeso (oh, Lord) it was pointless for me to apply because now I am being told where, when and what I must buy for my farm. Now I must use my own diesel to get supplies from out of town. The vendor that they have selected sells clothing and not things that I need.”

Ngcobo says that farmers who have picked up on discrepancies are welcome to bring this to the department’s attention. The department has distributed a list of suggested prices of essential inputs needed by farmers to sustain their farming endeavours under the lockdown period.

“They should give specific details and evidence of these incidents. There are agreed prices and we encouraged farmers who have experienced incidents where they are sold inputs at inflated prices to report the case to the provincial department, then we would be able to take action against these particular suppliers.”

Food For Mzansi made attempts to reach out to a supplier named by more than one farmer for alleged price inflation. They refused to address the allegations.

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