Changing agriculture narrative


As Malawi’s agriculture sector continues to grapple with the effects of weak innovation, a Chinese-built Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centre (ATDC) at Chipoka in Salima is expected to change the story— if properly utilised. And as ALICK PONJE writes, from the hot lakeshore district of Salima and surrounding areas, farmers are renewing their hopes for improved productivity after years of despair.

The centre has been failing and continues to fail to hold for Malawi’s main zone of economic progress, the agriculture sector, which often seems to have been left to progress on its own.

The extractive industry story has been recapped several times, sometimes in terms that have become slogans for those seeking to score some political points. Yet, by now, indicators seem to suggest that Malawians must turn for help to a point nowhere near a robust extractive industry.


Some of the country’s large-scale farmers such as Felix Jumbe of Peacock Seed have repeatedly impressed upon government to ensure agriculture is optimally mechanised in the country so that even those practising on small scales should at least reap more with little.

But as such farmers themselves agree in the same breath, mechanisation cannot be wholly effective if farmers are not exposed to new technologies which are not a new phenomenon elsewhere.

“I have been growing cotton for over 10 years now. Things have been going bad and slowly in terms of the quality and prices, of course,” Fanuel Chinkhuzi, a smallholder farmer living and cultivating near a ATDC at Chipoka in Salima, says as he tends his crops.


On a peculiarly cool January morning, rain showers drizzle onto the verdant leaves of the thriving crops which will need just a little more caution before they can produce the best.

The vast ATDC—which will soon start being fully accessed by farmers from all over the country—has recreated optimism for the revamping of not only the cotton industry but the whole struggling agriculture sector.

Locals that I talked to, or talked to me, are calling it a centre of hope.

“We have seen how innovative we can be in processing our harvest so that we avoid losses even though the centre is not fully operational,” Chinkhuzi adds. “There are technologies which will also help us in dealing with problems such as pests and diseases for our crops. There is hope for improved agricultural practices for us.”

Many more farmers that I talked to are positive about the benefits they will reap from the ATDC.

“It is our centre. It is in our midst. Obviously, we are the biggest beneficiaries,” Linda Chikungu, a 54-year-old widow with four children, says.

She adds: “At first, when authorities told us that they wanted to construct this centre, we thought they simply wanted to use the piece of land for things we will not benefit from. But then, with time, we discovered that they were real.”

While arguing that the real fruits of the centre might not be appreciated immediately, an agricultural technology expert, Moses Mvula, notes that the transferring of skills from experts to locals is the greater fortune that it brings.

He recalls that the country once had vibrant agricultural development centres which seem to have slumbered after the coming of multiparty politics.

“But the Salima ATDC is unique in the sense that it is centrally located and is near Lake Malawi which guarantees continuous use even when rains are not falling,” Mvula observes.

In fact, even the information that we got from the Chinese Embassy in Lilongwe supports such observations. According to the Embassy, trainees are coming from all over the country.

Essentially, as it also falls within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global development strategy proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the centre further provides an opportunity for Malawian farmers to tap knowledge from others and boost their activities.

And with all this coming together in one pack, the ATDC—built under the framework of the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (Focac)—is seen as one of the alternative models to pursue sustainability in China’s foreign aid to Malawi in the new era.

According to information that we sourced, last year, the ADTC introduced almost 100 species of crops and vegetables from China, carried out 130 planting examinations, held seven technical training courses with more than 280 locals benefitting and offered agricultural technology consulting more than 230 times.

“The training programmes are oriented towards people from all over Malawi. The ATDC works closely with the Malawi Ministry of Agriculture to select the beneficiaries,” reads part of the information that was made available to us from the centre.

According to the ministry’s spokesperson Osborn Tsoka, there are also more fortunes that the centre brings—that apart from providing expert training to Malawians, after three years, it will be handed over to the Malawi government so that it can be fully in its hands.

He reveals that the centre has also enough and conducive space for other meetings and that government will obviously capitalise on that.

“An agricultural technology demonstration centre as big and detailed as the Salima one is something that will change the way we do agriculture in Malawi,” Tsoka vouches, adding: “Local farmers are learning new technologies and, of course, adopting some new crop varieties after appreciating their performance.”

It must be the case that a project of this nature often begs several questions regarding other areas including employment for locals who surround it.

While it may not be practical that expert trainers may come from within, Lloyd Chimaliro—a Form Four dropout who still managed to acquire some vocational skills— hopes that there is something for him and other youths at the ATDC.

“We were told that there is work for us as long as we follow proper channels of applying,” he said when I recently found him at the place. “Some of us are carpenters, bricklayers, electricians and welders. They have told us that the centre will continue growing and our services are needed.”

Tsoka upholds such sentiments of hope, adding that government has the liberty to use the structures free of charge, according to the agreement with the managers of the project.

“At the same time, when these Chinese are conducting training, our experts will also be there to learn skills which they will later transfer to others. We hope that it is a very important chain in agricultural productivity,” he says.

Nevertheless, in any positive development, it is impossible to completely tuck away all probable threats.

For instance, while the Salima ATDC could be billed to rewrite the narrative of Malawi’s agriculture innovations, there are those who believe the chain should go beyond the production level.

“Technology has to improve things and we know that once farmers fully embrace it, they will significantly improve their production.

“That is what everyone wishes to achieve in their farming endeavours but if we fail to find markets with the little that we produce, where will we find them with the large quantities as a result of modern agricultural technologies?” queries Farmers Union president Alfred Kapichira Banda.

Such a view might seem counterproductive but Mvula—who is also working on new technologies for grading cereals—feels it is genuine and needs to be addressed.

According to the agriculture technology expert, the problem with Malawi is that production chains do not often complete the circle that they do elsewhere.

He notes that in countries such as Ghana, where agricultural technologies are gaining some great momentum, farmers—mostly smallholder ones—are assured of ready and fair markets which create more hope for a robust return to the fields.

“So while we say the Salima ATDC is a game-changer, we must also be pushing for more and fairer markets. For a country such as ours that heavily relies on agriculture for its economy to run, everything humanly possible must be done to nurture the sector,” Mvula opines.

So, the ready-and-fair-markets end must justify the means. Tsoka agrees.

From the centre, he states, the knowledge that local farmers will get will obviously result in reaping more on small pieces of land.

“So it is incumbent upon us to ensure that the markets for the bumper yields are readily available. They will be available because we want these farmers to continue with their efforts,” the agriculture ministry spokesperson states, expectantly.

On the other hand, since the ATDC is part of China’s alternative model for the sustainability of foreign aid, it also fits into BRI which seeks to lower transaction costs and create an easy way of adding value to agricultural produce which will find their way to the rest of the world from countries such as Malawi.


This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.

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