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Farmers’ joy in new system

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CHIPATA – We are satisfied with the positive feedback

Mabvuto Chirwa is adamant about commercial farming despite that, over the years, it has not always warmed his heart.

Sometimes, as vendors flock to rural locations to purchase cereals and legumes, he gets tempted—like many others in Chikangawa Extension Planning Area (EPA)—to let a small chunk of his produce go.

The EPA, in Mzimba, is one of the most cropped parts of the expansive district where households have huge plots of maize, tobacco and cassava—grown for both subsistence and commercial purposes.

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So every moment an announcement has been made about the structured purchase of farm produce, smallholder farmers’ hope for good money rises.

“When you grow crops for commercial purposes, you expect to reap something from your toil. It, however, does not always happen,” Chirwa, married with three children, says.

The past years have been difficult for many households in Yohane Village, where he comes from. Having their farm produce disposed of has always faced challenges where, sometimes, they had to use unchartered means of getting through.

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So, as Chirwa ferried his 2.5 metric tonnes (MT) of maize to Mzuzu City to sell to AHL Commodities Exchange (AHCX) late last year, the fear that he might not deservedly reap from his toil had not vanished.

He was just excited about trying a new system where, he had heard, several stakeholders had come together to help in procuring 32,000 MT for the National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA).

“It just felt good to test this new system since I had sold my farm produce elsewhere where I faced several challenges such that my will to continue with commercial farming was being sapped,” Chirwa says.

AHCX had been awarded a contract by the government through NFRA to purchase the grain for the Strategic Grain Reserves following a recommendation by Parliament that other traders should be tasked with buying maize, with NFRA concentrating on storing it.

A team of officers from Civil Society Agriculture Network (Cisanet), Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (MCCCI), Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), Auditor General’s office and AHCX formed the Internal Procurement Committee (IPC) which was chaired by Cisanet.

Chirwa believes having such a team ensured that transparency and accountability were maintained throughout the purchase process which was concluded on November 2 last year.

“The process was very good; something that I have not seen before. The weighing scales were not tampered with. For instance, I brought 2.5 metric tonnes which I had weighed at home.

“There was no change when I took it to the depot where AHCX was buying the maize,” Chirwa, who hopes to sell his maize through the same system again, says.

As he left Mzuzu City for his village, he had, of course, not completely got rid of the fear that had accompanied him on his trip to sell his maize.

With procurements of that nature, you do not get paid right away as the awarder of the contract has to be invoiced first before transferring the funds through the contractor.

“They promised that the money would be in my account in a week’s time. I initially thought the arrangement would not be respected until I, indeed, got my money within the promised period. That is why I keep saying the process was very transparent and orderly,” Chirwa explains with contentment.

As he prepares to sell his maize again when a similar window opens, he is optimistic that other smallholder farmers, who continue being short-changed by unscrupulous traders, will take his direction.

The rejection of some farmers’ commodity also taught him about the importance of taking good care of one’s farm produce.

“We learnt a lot in terms of taking care of our maize. We could take for granted things like grading the grain until we saw some of it being rejected. The good thing is that after being rejected, they eventually purchased it after the problems got sorted out,” he recalls.

When he thinks about other farmers far from Mzuzu, Lilongwe, Liwonde and Luchenza—locations where AHCX purchased the grain—Chirwa prays for an increase in centres for easy accessibility.

“For instance, someone from Chitipa could not easily get to Mzuzu with, maybe, just ten bags. I hope next time, there will be more points for us to sell our maize,” he says.

At Luchenza, farm produce trader Chiphwanya Banda, who supplied 90MT, is also optimistic that the transparency that was seen and felt when AHCX purchased maize there will be maintained.

Unlike in the past when he would spend days to offload the grain, this time, everything would be done on his appointed day.

“AHCX ensured that traders offloaded their maize within the agreed time and this ensured that there were no long queues. It was good business,” Banda states.

He brings to mind having taken his produce to the warehouse a few minutes before midday and finalising the whole process in less than five hours. Banda describes that as a first.

He has also learnt a lot in terms of how to handle his farm produce following the strictness displayed by officers who were purchasing the maize.

“Moving forward, we will take very good care of our maize and other types of farm produce. They often fetch lower prices due to improper handling,” he says.

AHCX General Manager, Thomson Chipata, foresees more efficient systems of handling similar assignments given a chance to.

The involvement of smallholder farmers, who have all along been thrust into the periphery of such projects, excites Chipata who stresses that before procurement, the maize was tested by both AHCX and NFRA.

He attributes the success in the procurement of the 32,000MT to various stakeholders that saw to it that every process was being followed and that no one would infiltrate the system which any illicit activity.

“The presence of ACB in the IPC ensured that there were integrity and transparency as also supported by other partners namely MCCCI, Cisanet, and the office of the AG.

“We are satisfied with the positive feedback which we received after visits by the Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development and the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture,” Chipata says.

He relates that his institution put in place various surveillance and reporting systems to curb any attempts at corruption by any stakeholder.

However, Chipata does not want to pretend that the procurement process was entirely impeccable.

For instance, the fact that they had to turn back some traders whose grain did not meet the minimum standards meant adjustments in time slots.

“As such, there were moments when a lot of deliveries were done on one day because those who had been sent back to improve the quality of their maize returned on a different day,” he recollects.

Chairperson of the Agriculture Committee of Parliament, Joseph Chidanti-Malunga, says his committee was very close in terms of overseeing the procurement process which he has described as generally good.

“There were improvements in terms of cases of corruption and favouritism. But there always is room for improvement,” he says.

For Banda and Chirwa, the lessons learnt on their first ever trip to sell their maize to NFRA through AHCX mean improvements in their trade.

Perhaps that addresses Chipata’s worry in terms of delays triggered by rejection of low quality grain which pushed suppliers to other time allocations.

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