By James Mphande, contributor
It is 5am and Anyetike Mwakatundu and his team are already at their duty station; an open space in between palm trees in their village at Iponga in Karonga District.
They will be here the whole day despite the blazing sun and sweltering heat.
All this hard work earns them eight litres of crude, and not refined, cooking oil per day. That is not all; the process from harvesting of the palm trees to production of crude oil takes them three solid days.
On a good day, this amount of oil earns them a meagre K3,500—not much for a team of four men and two women.
“The process is manual and everything is tough and energy sapping. We harvest the palm fruits from as high as 10 metres up the palm trees, which are themselves difficult to climb. The fruits are boiled for fermentation before we put them in a drum where we crash the palp, not seeds, manually,” Mwakatundu said.
According to him, it is sad that refined cooking oil is beyond the reach of most Malawians because of high prices.
In the 2022-23 Budget Statement, Minister of Finance Sosten Gwengwe announced removal of Value Added Tax (VAT) on cooking oil to help bring down the cost of cooking oil.
And according to Minister of Information Gospel Kazako, with this development, government expects nothing but reduced prices for the commodity.
However, some tax experts argued that the removal of VAT on cooking oil could in fact trigger a price increase as input VAT will now be a cost to local cooking oil manufacturers.
If this analysis is anything to go by, perhaps the long-term solution is in Mwakatundu’s plea to have local indigenous and small-scale cooking oil manufacturers empowered with efficient facilities to increase and improve their production levels and quality.
Fortunately for Mwakatundu and his team, their prayers were answered on December 18 2021 when the Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must), through the Directorate of Research, Postgraduate Studies and Outreach and the Bingu School of Culture and Heritage, supported them with a modern crude oil processing machine.
With the new machine, the team can now produce 1,000 litres within an hour and extract more oil from the fruits than the old method.
Speaking at Iponda Primary School ground during handover of the equipment, Must Director of Research Alfred Maluwa said the support was aimed at entrenching a culture of industrialisation among local communities to increase efficiency in production.
“The genesis was that Malawi continues to import cooking oil, thereby making it very expensive on the market, yet the country has requisite raw materials such as soya, groundnuts and palm,” Maluwa says.
Traditional Authority Mwakaboko thanked Must for deciding to work with communities as, all along, he thought universities were only relevant to intellectuals.
Must Registrar Alfred Chinombo said the university would also be sending students and staff to carry out research on various aspects of cooking oil production in areas such as improving oil yields from palm fruits and seed, minimising waste, improving machine efficiency, diversification of products from palm fruits and value addition, and commercialisation.
“We want to make sure this industry grows and becomes more localised in all aspects so that it can create more jobs, especially for women, and, more importantly, make cooking oil more accessible and affordable on the local market,” Chinombo said.
The university is also working with the community to come up with another modern machine that can crash the palm fruit for oil production as, currently, producers are unable to crash the fruit and end up selling it at give-away prices to Tanzanian vendors.
Apart from cooking oil, the cake from the palm fruits can also be used for animal feed and soap manufacturing, among other products. Industrialisation is one of the pillars under the country’s long term development plan called Malawi 2063.
Among partners, Must is working with the district council and the traditional leadership under Mwakaboko.
The project is funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering from the UK through Higher Education partnership in sub-Saharan Africa Project.