Modern day slaves
Modern day slaves

Phane harvesters decry exploitation by richer traders

The deplorable economic conditions faced by tens of thousands of Batswana, particularly women has seen most of them eke a living out of a seasonal abundance of mophane worm.

A local delicacy that is consumed mainly in the Northern parts of Botswana, this worm has since become a source of relief and pain for most of its harvesters.

Selling for about P300 per kg, harvesting phane, which used to be a reserve for the downtrodden, and the poor who saw this popular worm as their only source of income has now attracted the opportunistic middle class traders.

Armed with trading licenses to export the harvest to neighboring countries such as South Africa and Zimbabwe, these entrepreneurs have been likened to modern day slave masters.

Driven by the desire to make more profit, these traders driving flashy 4X4 vans are reportedly targeting extremely poor harvesters whom they entice with goodies like second hand clothing, food, water and transport to get their hands on their more valuable harvest.

Lucia Makombo (35), is a single mother of three who has been harvesting phane for the last seven years.

“I travel to wherever phane is abundant. I’ve camped in areas around Selebi Phikwe, Bobirwa and right here in Goshwe to harvest,” she said in an interview.

“Despite my efforts I have nothing to show,” she added gloomily.

Makombo said on a good year, a month away in the bush can yield two 50kg bags which has a street value of P30 000.

However the Tutume native says she mostly arrives back home with a quarter of her total harvest.

“I loose almost everything to other traders who have the means to survive in the bush. Some of these people have nice cars and they are able to carry huge tanks of water into the bush,” she said.

“Water is a scarcity out here, and a liter of water can cost you half of your day’s harvest,” she said.

According to Makombo who resorted to doing odd jobs and harvesting mopane worm due to lack of employment, “khuwa” or “makgoa” as these traders are known in the bush follow the harvesters and set up camp in the bush.

She said they live in “nice canvas tents and cook nice foods on their gas stoves.”

“Out here we only eat pap and mopane worm. The aroma of a grilled russian or fried chicken livers or feet is too much to resist for a harvester who has eaten nothing but phane for 15 days,” Makombo said, adding “however a taste of such delicacies can cost you a big cup of mopane worms.”

Another harvester, Unopa Ngwenya (42) told Voice Money that harvesting phane is slowly becoming an exercise in futility.

She said their poverty is being exploited by those who have the means. “At the end of the harvest season, they leave the campsite with huge bags of the worm loaded in their cars. They charge you a bag to transport you back to the village and that leaves us with nothing, we basically work for them,” she said.

Ngwenya a resident of Jackalas No 2, said the trade has become unsafe for most women who are exposed to all sorts of dangers.

“We need education on how we can make money out of our hard work. We need to know more about licenses and how we can also export to South Africa,” she said.

In 2013 small business trading in phane were told that they’d need export permits to reach other African markets.

The Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism through the Department of Forestry and Range Resources (DFRR) is the sole issuer of exports permits to facilitate phane trade both locally and with neighboring countries.

These move has left many poor harvesters in the lurch, while it was grabbed with both hands by the opportunistic ‘khuwas’ who have suddenly struck gold on trees.

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