It is a typical Tuesday for Nyless Chikadza, a coffee farmer who has been harvesting slightly over 1,200 kilogrammes (kg) of the crop every year.
Her two fields stretch across a cleared forestland the size of a football pitch.
The hilly landscape in most of Ntchisi District, characterised by a temperate climate and moist and well-drained soil, has allowed Chikadza to stick to coffee cultivation for her family’s survival.
“Every year, I make around K380,000 from coffee sales,” the mother-of-five widow says.
She will soon be acquiring the last harvest for this year, having started collecting the cash crop for four months.
As she strolls around the plantation, sniffing at the lush leaves of the multi-stemmed evergreen shrubs and the bright, deep-red cherries, Chikadza indicates she wants to acquire more land to extend the farm.
The amount she has been making annually is way below what she would ideally earn if she processed her harvest in a modern manner.
She is assured this year will be different.
“I usually roast the coffee and grind it with a pestle in a wooden mortar. In the process, some coffee is wasted,” Chikadza says.
Even what she takes to Ntchisi East Coffee Cooperative Society— where she is a member— does not earn the amount she now knows her yield deserves.
After plucking the coffee beans off the plants, the 297 members of the cooperative, just one of at least six in the country with a membership of between 3,000 and 4,000 farmers, could pulp, ferment, wash and sun dry them manually.
They could not hull the seeds, a process of removing the protective outer covering and lost about K3,500 in every kg of the produce which used to fetch K1,415.
“Now that we have pulping and hulling machines, we will be selling our coffee at K4,000 per kg,” the cooperative’s chairperson Nickson Chindungwa explains.
This has excited Chikadza, who, like other members of the group, has further acquired more skills of caring for the crop first introduced in the country by the British colonisers in the late 1800s.
More people in her village on the slopes of a range of rolling hills are venturing into coffee farming after seeing how it benefits her family.
“What more with the profits the new machines will bring?” she says rhetorically.
Chindungwa discloses that members of the cooperative that he chairs are also into bee-keeping and plant trees in bare patches as a way of contributing to environmental conservation. They appreciate that coffee farming involves clearing vast swathes of forestland.
“It is the usual balance between economic development and environmental conservation. Individual members sell the honey and supplement their households’ income,” he says.
The profile of Ntchisi East Coffee Cooperative Society has been considerably raised following a matching grant of K163 million from Agriculture Commercialisation (Agcom), a World Bank-financed project which seeks to transform smallholder farming from mostly subsistence to commercial.
The work, implemented with a $95 million (approximately K78 billion at current exchange rates) loan, links producer organisations, service providers and buyers in a value chain.
Chindungwa says his cooperative has off-takers from as far as South Africa, Japan and the United Kingdom ready to buy one of Africa’s great-tasting coffees.
“This is already a source of encouragement. While coffee typically takes about three years before bearing the first fruits, what we already have is enough to give us more money.
“Agcom has trained us in how best we can take care of the crop right from the fields. With additional plantations, our families will never be the same,” he states.
In the matching grant concept, the cooperative is contributing 30 percent of the K163 million—which is K48.9 million.
Having already accessed the first and second tranches, the farmers are also working on acquiring more equipment in processing their harvests.
“We are also lucky that Agcom drilled boreholes for us and rehabilitated a road to our cooperative’s base. Coffee processing requires a lot of water. With the rehabilitated road, moving the produce and other materials is now easy,” Chindungwa says.
Agcom National Coordinator Teddie Nakhumwa is content that the initiative is raising the profiles of farmers in groups.
With most farmers being able to add value to their produce and acquire business management skills, Nakhumwa says fetching better prices for their yields locally and internationally is guaranteed.
“These are smallholder farmers and, by getting organised, they are operating like estates. Previously, big machines were owned by big estates. Now, cooperatives own them,” he says.
He expects more farmer cooperatives—from a total of 300 targeted to be reached by the end of the six-year project winding up in 2023—will have had their over 600,000 members graduated from subsistence agriculture.
“We want to create ongoing benefits and generate more revenue from exports. We are also contributing to the national food base,” Nakhumwa says.
For Chikadza, that she is able to sustainably put food on her family’s table and send her children to school using proceeds from coffee farming lulls her heart in the absence of her husband.
“Here I am, working and feeding my children. I will build a bigger and modern house. I don’t look down upon myself,” she says.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. Follow him on Twitter @aponje