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KwaZulu-Natal - A government agency set up to rescue struggling black emerging farmers is itself sinking – with its irregular expenditure ballooning from R23 million to R55.6m between the past financial year and the current one.

Now concerned members of the province’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) are questioning the existence of the agency, saying it should be shut down and its services should be shifted to the agriculture department.

This emerged in a Scopa meeting in Pietermaritzburg on Tuesday. The committee is currently meeting the government and its agencies for medium term expenditure reviews.

The Agri Business Development Agency was set up in 2009 to rescue black commercial farmers on the verge of having their farms repossessed by banks.

The farmers had acquired land through the government’s land reform programme.

It emerged that the agency was poorly staffed and, in some instances, had missed last year’s planting season.

Members of the KwaZulu-Natal legislature were outraged.

“How does this irregular expenditure balloon from R23 million to R55.6 million in two financial years? We need a full explanation of what is going on here,” said the IFP’s Lionel Mtshali.

The DA’s Mark Steele charged that it was “beyond incompetence… This irregular expenditure constitutes 38 percent of your budget… it is staggering for me”, said Steel.

Belinda Scott of the ANC described the irregular expenditure as “outrageous”.

The auditor-general, in his report, was also scathing about the agency’s ability to perform its duties and to deliver on its objectives. He blamed the 2011/12 irregular expenditure on contravention of supply chain management protocols.

In some cases, the agency was found to have failed to invite competitive bids through advertising for the required minimum period of 21 days.

“Of the total number of planned targets only 15, which constitute 45 percent, were achieved during the year under review. This was mainly because the targets were not suitably developed during the strategic planning phase,” said a spokesman for the office of the auditor-general.

It emerged during yesterday’s meeting that the department had no procurement unit and that this service had to be out-sourced.

Agri Business Development Agency chief executive officer Robson Zimuto said the problem was that the agency worked with farmers who were in distress and on the verge of having their farms repossessed.

“It is difficult to plan properly under such a situation,” he said. - The Mercury