By Tiwonge Kacheche, Contributor:
The auctioneers’ chant is unmissable, even in the din of the huge tobacco auction floors, you will hear it.
Farmers murmuring, buyers calling each other, the squeak of the barrow wheels lining up the bales of tobacco for sale, you can still hear it.
This time though, it is a softer voiced auctioneers’ chant and yes, it is a female voice, a voice of an auctioneer leading a crowded tail of tobacco buyers, markers and others.
The only one ahead of her is a starter, female as well.
Remarkably as AHL Tobacco Sales Limited (AHL-TS) came to be in this year, Lilongwe Auction Floors witnessed for first-time an all-women sales team take to the floor.
On this particular day in September, it was Martha Chisi, the starter calling the starting prices on each bale on auction market, auctioneers Tiwonge Msowoya and Mickness Kaunda took turns chanting the prices as marker Orlene Chunda took note of the prices of the traded bales.
On the periphery but not far, Daisy Fatchi was engaged animatedly with farmers hearing their concerns and answering their questions. This was a first.
When I caught up with the team after sales, yes there were tired, but they were excited about a job “well-done”.
Chisi said although the job was challenging, it was not daunting and that as a team they work seamlessly to perfectly sell tobacco as any other team would.
“We work with no regard to our gender and handle anything and everything that comes up as we conduct the sale,” she says smiling.
“Our work is very systematic as such when issues arise; we are able to handle them with speed and ease. We are trained to do this and do it as good as any male colleague,” Chisi says.
They are not the only team though, and often they work with male colleagues who take on other roles.
“We work without notice of gender, we work as a team,” she adds.
Msowoya who in 2015 became the first-ever female auctioneer for AHL-TS, echoes the sentiments saying the challenges have not been about being female, but ensuring that they maintain the high standards of performance on the job.
“We are well trained for the roles that we take on, but every situation is unique and we have to deal with it the best we can,” she says.
Msowoya has been strutting the floors for a long time. She started at the lower echelons of the complex tobacco trading system.
“I have worked my way up as such I have the advantage of experience and knowledge which is very important to having the team when in operation to deliver,” she adds.
“We have a very supportive work environment such that we and our male colleagues work above the gender divide.
“It has taken concerted effort to prove that this is a job that can be done without regard to gender and we are living proof,” she added.
For Fatchi, hers is an ever-exciting experience engaging with farmers as they come to witness tobacco sales.
Fatchi is a grower’s representative, a job that entails listening to the concerns of farmers, allaying their fears and where necessary, scaling up the enquiry to relevant officers.
“At times, there are growers that find it difficult to believe a young lady like me will help them sort out their problems. But I understand that, it is cultural, and when we sit down and sort out their problems, they come out of the preconception and feel that I did more than they expected” she says.
Fatchi says her presence on the floors also helps female growers have better access to assistance when they have concerns or an enquiry.
“Because of the cultural set up in most communities, the women find it hard to seek help from males, especially in a new environment. My presence helps them. They often say that as women they find it easier to ask for information from me and get their problems resolved,” she adds.
When on the floors, the all-ladies selling team creates a buzz not only for the buyers but even growers who watch candidly.
During a recent growers’ tour aimed at taking growers through the tobacco receiving and sales processes, growers acknowledged that the processes of trading tobacco were now demystified.
“The presence of these ladies is helpful. We usually saw only men and the assumption was that tobacco trading can only be done by men. Now it is easier for us as well to send our wives to follow up on some of these sales, since they will be assisted by fellow women here,” one grower on the tour says.
Chisi, Msowoya and Fatchi also agree.
Their increased presence and roles on the tobacco trading floors are breaking barriers for women in the tobacco value chain.
During trading session, there are more women involved in the processes, including those from buyer and regulatory institutions.
“Even on the stakeholders’ side we are seeing more and more women taking roles and jobs on the floors, which gives us confidence as we are working,” Chisi says.
Mhango muses on what has kept her going, which is the knowledge that she could do it.
“My husband and children are very supportive,” she says adding that when she broke the news to them that she was the first-ever female auctioneer, they celebrated with her.
“At times, I get home tired, but I still have to be the mother and wife that I am and feel that it is part of who I am,” she says.
At AHL-TS it not only these three ladies who have taken up leading roles.
The Information Centre, which is a key facility in disseminating information to tobacco sellers about their sales and payment information, is a busy hub of activities and often has queues of growers waiting in line.
At the helm of this hub of activities is Mary Chilala, Customer Care Manager, yet another example of the growing power of the women in the tobacco selling sector of this vast industry.
AHL Group Public Relations Manager, Teresa Ndanga, says the company acknowledges the power of diversity in business growth.
“Since women are taking up more and more challenging roles that only men used to take up gives confidence to women and they feel valued. Women on the frontline of tobacco sales have delivered just as their male counterparts.
“We have also seen growing numbers of female stakeholders visiting the floors and interacting with our female staff. The perceptions that women cannot deliver as efficiently as their male counterparts is remarkably changing amongst growers,” Ndanga says.
Tobacco is Malawi’s main foreign exchange earner and the tobacco industry employs many people.
Surely, the coming on board of women in leadership positions in the tobacco business can only be good news to the country and the economy.