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Chili, sunflower farming: Missed opportunity?

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KACHEPA—Things started changing

For decades, 70-year-old Jessy Kachepa from Nkanda Village, Traditional Authority Nkanda in Mulanje District, had been subjected to every commercial farmer’s worst nightmare—labouring without realising profits.

Kachepa, who one day dreamt of owning a house with electricity and educating her children to escape poverty, faced heartbreaks year after year.

The mother of two tried growing some of the country’s major cash crops such as maize and cotton with no breakthrough.

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After labouring for years in vain, Kachepa ray of hope shone on the farmer in 2016 after she ventured into chili farming.

“Since then, I have been realising profits which have helped me fulfil my dreams. I am now building my dream home and I managed to send my daughter to a nursing school through farming. She is now a qualified nurse and is deployed in Nkhotakota,” Kachepa says, a broad beam registering on her face.

In Malawi, chili is not given the same attention maize and tobacco get, which makes it hard for chili farmers to find markets.

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“I was selling my farm produce to vendors who were giving us low prices but in 2016 I joined National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi [Nasfam] where things started changing. The first year of producing chili, I made about K400,000 in sales,” Kachepa boasts.

Annie Muchawa is a sunflower farmer in Chanasa Village, Traditional Authority Nkhumba in Phalombe District.

Muchawa, 37, says she ventured into commercial farming over 10 years ago but failed to make a living out of farming due to lack of stable markets.

“I used to sell my farm produce to vendors and I did not have any bargaining power. As a result, I would sell my produce at low prices just to put food on the table for the day,” she says.

The mother of four said joining an agriculture association changed her life for the better.

Through Nasfam, Muchawa is able to sell her produce and realise profits because she is affiliated to Zikometso Innovation and Productivity Centre (IPC), which is involved in the production of high-value crops such as bird’s eye chili, sunflower, pigeon peas and soybeans.

The IPC has two offices in Mulanje and Phalombe districts with chili sauce and cooking oil production facilities respectively.

“I have managed to build a house and the same proceeds will help me educate my children,” Muchawa says.

These stories are a symbol of how important agriculture associations or clubs are for farmers to reap maximum benefits from their toil.

Nasfam, with support from Norwegian Government, is implementing a value addition project in Mulanje and Phalombe aimed at improving processing of sunflower and chili and providing farmers with access to good markets.

“We established a factory for chili processing in Mulanje and one in Phalombe for sunflower processing and both have grown significantly.

“The processed chili is now fully certified by the Malawi Bureau of Standards [MBS] and they have managed to acquire additional financing for them to expand the processing,” Nasfam Chief Executive Officer Betty Chinyamunyamu said.

Chinyamunyamu said the association is looking forward to expanding the processing of chili from the current 100 bottles per day to 1,000 bottles per day.

“This is a good development for farmers because when we do process within farmers’ vicinity it increases the chance of getting stable markets and high prices.

“On cooking oil production, the association is looking forward to increasing capacity and getting certified with MBS for the sunflower processing factory in Phalombe and another in Mzimba and by the end of the year, be able to put 40,000 litres of oil onto the market,” she said.

Nasfam is, among other things, helping farmers increase their yields by teaching them modern farming methods and, after production, the farmers are given access to stable markets.

“Lack of access to good markets is one of the major challenges that most small-scale famers face, there are a lot of projects and initiatives aiming at improving production but after that most of farmers struggle to get markets.

“In many areas we have vendors who will go to buy commodities at lower prices and even lower than cost of production. We encourage farmers to sell in groups to increase their bargaining power and also help them to negotiate for good prices,” Chinyamunyamu said.

Norwegian Ambassador to Malawi, Steinar Egil Hagen, said Malawi has the potential to export agricultural commodities if some policy issues are resolved.

Hagen made the remarks recently during a visit to Zikometso IPC in Phalombe and Mulanje districts.

“I came here to investigate and find out the progress that has been made from our support which has been there for many years and I’m very impressed meeting some of the farmers who are growing chili and have the capacity to produce chili of export quality.

“In Phalombe, they also have a factory where they are going to be producing and increase good quality sunflower cooking oil which sells in shops in Malawi so that the importation of cooking oil can go down in Malawi because there is no reason for Malawi not to produce its own cooking oil,” he said.

He said Norway, as one of Malawi’s main development partners, believes that agriculture remains the future of the country.

“Agriculture is everything for Malawi. It is the past, present and future of Malawi. Agriculture is the most important commodity as it employs the huge part of the population and there are many challenges but there is a scope for improving the quality, capacity and productivity not only to serve the domestic market but also for export,” Hagen said.

He, however, pointed out that policy issues need to be resolved and that there is need for more training for small-scale farmers so that they develop their potential further.

Ministry of Agriculture Public Relations Officer, Gracian Lungu, said the major challenge with sunflower and chili production in the country is lack of readily available markets both locally and internationally.

“Admarc basically buys agricultural produce that is on demand at that particular time because it cannot make sense for it to buy produce that is not on demand. It means it is a waste of government money,” he said.

Lungu was, however, quick to point out that government, through the ministry, has several initiatives to increase production of sunflower and chili in the country.

“In most cases, some companies contract farmers to grow crops for them and, as a ministry, we are also opting to do the same.

“Currently, we are trying to implement the mega farms concept and some of the proposals are that we have to do much in sunflower and chili production under the agreement which we entered with Greenbelt Authority and Conforzi Plantations in Thyolo,” he said.

Lungu said since the country is facing challenges in accessing cheaper cooking oil, the ministry is planning on improving the sunflower seed.

“As of now, most of the farmers who are producing sunflower are producing around 15,000 to 20,000 metric tonnes in a year as our annual harvest and the seed is usually imported so we are working with the research department to consider coming up with our own seed and multiply it so that the farmers should be able to grow our own seed which will be a hybrid one,” he said.

Unlike maize and tobacco which are given enough attention and exported, chili and sunflower still have a long way to go.

“All along, most of the cooking oil was being made from soybean. We could not rely on sunflower as it had no readily available market; it’s only now that some companies are using sunflower to produce oil and if you go back, the issue of cooking oil was not a problem until recently when the prices are exorbitant.

“So, as a ministry, we have also decided to look for alternatives because we respond to issues that are also emerging. That is why we want to improve the sunflower seed and let farmers grow it extensively,” Lungu said.

However, with the Russia-Ukraine war, Lungu said a lot of countries that relied on the two countries for sunflower are now opting for Africa, meaning markets are now available.

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