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Bingu wa Mutharika’s Green Belt dream takes root

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Creator of Mickey Mouse, Tom and Jerry and the entire fairy world they live in, Walt Disney, wrote: “If you can think it, you can do it!”

Late president Bingu wa Mutharika thought and saw it all panning out in green colour along the banks of Lake Malawi and the rest of water bodies in the country: the Green Belt Initiative (GBI).

“The Green Belt Initiative aims to mitigate the effects of climate change; complement the rain-fed agriculture; and make the country food sufficient by increasing the country’s surplus,” said Mutharika, selling his dream to Malawians in 2009.

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In his 2009 GBI Strategic Plan, he envisaged 200,000 hectares under irrigation across Malawi by 2016.

Six years down the line after conceiving the GBI and three years since he passed on, Bingu’s dream is surely shaping up.

In the lakeshore district of Salima, two multi-billion dollar agro-ventures are poised to turn the region’s importation feelers to Malawi for sugar and fruit products.

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Squatting on a 40-hectare piece of land in Chikwawa area in Salima is a US$33m (about K15.4bn) state-of-the-art sugar mill that is near completion, with a vast irrigable land of over 6,000 hectares around it to source sugarcane from.

Just a few kilometers to the south of Chikwawa is the Malawi Mangoes Company, a horticultural investment stretched on a vast land measuring 126 hectares in Makumba area where banana and mango plantations have already started bearing fruits.

Founded in 2009 by two Israel nationals, Craig Hardie and Jonathan Jacobs, Malawi Mangoes Farm and its smallholder group are planting over 400,000 mango trees, and over 200,000 banana plants to ensure fruit supply all year round.

“These two huge investments here are part of the Green Belt Initiative,” explains irrigation specialist and Acting National Coordinator for GBI, Henri Njoloma, during a media tour.

Malawi Mangoes Farm is designed in a fashion that it meets world standards right from staffing, planting and management of the fruit plantations, processing a n d exportation of the fruits products.

T h e mango trees at Makumba farm are made from three local varieties’ rootstocks which are grafted to scions imported from India and the new grafted seedlings are hardened in lath houses before they are taken to the field.

“The target of our fruit products is the world export market so we make sure the varieties of the fruits we produce meet world standards,” says Ndunga Chongwe, a horticulturalist at the farm.

“We use local rootstocks because they easily adapt to the local climate and to any climatic changes while the imported scion will give us the desired variety determined by the targeted market,”

Similarly, the banana seedlings are imported from India where they are produced in a lab using tissue culture method.

Tissue culture method is where the plant cells are used to reproduce an exact replica of the plant, bearing exact genetic composition.

Chongwe says the advantage of tissue culture production of plants is that by reproducing plants that carry a replica of genes, they grow and mature at the same time and this is good for large scale and export production especially when you have a ready and high demand market.

The farm pumps water from Lake Malawi using a high scale pumping system to irrigate its vast banana and mango plantations using drip irrigation.

Malawi Mangoes’ export products are fruit puree and juice processed by a state-of-the-art plant that meets world standards.

“High quality purees and juices can only be produced from a state-of-the-art processing facility that is designed, installed, commissioned and operated to the highest standards,” says the farm’s website.

“You can trust that we are taking no short cuts,” it says.

And a few kilometers up north, a sugar factory is shaping up and when completed, its contribution to the country’s economy will be felt by every Malawian, if Njoloma’s projections are anything to go by. The main contractor of the multi-billion sugar factory is Apollo International Limited while the sub-contractor is ISGEC, reportedly one of India’s best four sugar mills fabricating companies. The construction commenced in November 2013 and it is expected to finish by July or August 2015, according to the contractor’s Project Execution Manager, Mohammad Hussain.

The sugar plant is so sophisticated that it will not only produce high tonnage of sugar per day but it will also produce energy.

“This plant will have the capacity of 1, 250 tons of crashed sugar per day and it has boilers that will, in the process of their functioning, generate 3 megawatts of electricity,” says Hussein.

The generated power, according to Njoloma, will be sold back to Escom’s power grid and part of it would be used to power the factory and its surrounding 6,293 hectares, a larger part of which the factory’s sugar will be grown on.

Out of the total area of 6,293 hectares of land earmarked for sugar production in Chikwawa Estate, 4,000 hectares will be operated by a core grower who will also run the sugar factory; while up to 1,500 hectares and 530 hectares will be given to medium/private and small-scale farmers, according to Njoloma.

The remaining land will be for roads, offices, houses, hospital, filling station and other infrastructure required at a factory of thegiven magnitude.

Meanwhile, about 250 small-scale farmers, 100 medium scale farmers and 30 private farmers have already been identified to grow sugar on the Chikwawa sugar plantation.

When operational, the sugar factory in Salima is envisaged to employe over 5,000 Malawians.

According to Njoloma, the core sugar grower, who is also expected to run the factory, was already identified by government but some formalities are still in progress.

Government had to look elsewhere for the core cane grower and operator of the sugar plant after Malawian investors fell short of the desired capacity to run the factory.

Out of 200 Malawian investors who bought the bidding document, discloses Njoloma, only five showed interest and none of them succeeded.

The Chikwawa Estate has not just been lying idle awaiting the completion of the factory.

Between 2013 and 2015, a total of 530 hectares of land was cleared and small scale farmers, most of them relocated from the land and compensated, have been growing maize as an interim crop.

A booster pump has been mounted and a 6.5km-long 800mm pipeline has also been laid to tap water from the Lake to the scheme.

The GBI also built 9 Centre Pivots (CPs), multi-wheeled revolving large-scale irrigation equipment, which are ready and operational on the ground.

But the whole sugar factory construction project has not been without challenges.

“Challenge number one was Cashgate which did not spare even the OPC where the GBI falls under.

“The loss of funds halted the construction of the sugar mill and this incurred interests which we still owe the contractor.”

Other challenges included theft of some construction equipment by police officers who were manning the site and this led to delays and loss of money since every stolen material, no matter how small, has to be replaced by another imported all the way from India.

Elsewhere, and under the initiative, 2,000 hectares of irrigable land has already been identified in Karonga, Mangochi and the East Bank where property assessment, community mobilization and sensitization are currently underway.

The GBI Strategic Plan’s projections may not be met to the letter due a number of challenges faced in between 2009 and present.

But given all the required resources and support to implement the GBI on full scale across the country, Njoloma is optimistic Malawi would never be the same, once and forever.

“The dreamer of the Green Belt Initiative must have seen it working and we are going to implement that dream because we see it working too. The journey has just begun.

“If you look into the faces of people of Salima, especially those around the sugar factory scheme and the Malawi Mangoes Farm, you look into faces of people on the move to economic independence, and indeed, Malawi is on the move, and it will soon be the envy of the region where sugar and fruit products are concerned,” Njoloma says.

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