Doreen Msuku, 65, takes every stroll around her cattle kraal as a stroll of hope.
As the two 10-month-old cows munch the silage that she thrusts their way, the retired civil servant gets reminded about the comfort that lies ahead for her life.
She is positive that, by the end of this year, the amount of milk that the two exotic dairy cows will add to what her local one is producing will increase the yield fivefold or more.
“At my age, I don’t have to engage in backbreaking work. Dairy farming is the perfect choice for me,” Msuku says.
She is not even stopping there.
A privilege to add one more dairy cow to her kraal was dangled to the industrious woman and she eagerly grabbed it just like the other 53 members of Salima Dairy Farmers Cooperative which she belongs to.
“I want to build houses to let out and buy a nice car. In my old age, I have to rest. It is good to sit back and rest after retiring. The milk will let the cash flow,” the smiley woman says.
Her dream was amplified by a grant which the Agriculture Commercialisation (Agcom) project approved for the cooperative that has already received the K6.3 million first tranche of the grant.
Cooperatives are supposed to contribute 30 percent of the total amount they seek from Agcom, which wants farming to be commercialised from the lowest levels.
“So far, we have been trained in how to take care of dairy cattle. Some people think cattle don’t deserve clean kraals. That is totally wrong. They need to stay and sleep in comfortable kraals for them to produce what they are capable of,” Msuku says while stroking one of the Holsteins in her kraal.
The additional milk, which members of Salima Farmers Dairy Cooperative are expected to bulk after each of them adds a dairy cow to their herds, will meet the demand by Malawi Dairy Industry (MDI), Msuku hopes.
The processor opts for larger quantities—monthly minimums of 10,000 litres which the farmer group is failing to produce.
“But with the support from Agcom, we will surely exceed the demand. We will use another tranche of the grant to construct an office and procure milk cooling equipment.
“It will be easy for all of us to bring the milk together and sell as a bulk. That way, we will also be able to negotiate for better prices,” Msuku says.
Chairperson of the cooperative, Nelson Mkochi, is equally optimistic that the group will meet the demand by MDI and keep manipulative vendors at bay.
He praises the decision the farmers made to come together and tap from the $95 million World Bank loan with which Agcom also wants to promote value addition in selected products.
“We already have 70 cows and, with the first K6.3 million that we have received from Agcom, we will buy 25 before adding another 25 dairy cows after we get the second tranche.
“On average, a dairy cow costs K350,000. If we factor in the grant we are getting from Agcom, a farmer will contribute just about K100,000. It is a huge relief,” Mkochi says.
He recalls that the group, which started in 2002, has sluggishly progressed because its members lacked adequate financial support and only concentrated on saving and lending money.
They would gather under a large tree, in the searing hit of the lakeshore district, to bang heads on what would propel their economic lives.
Because they lacked the skills to get organised in terms of offering their milk to buyers, each went their own way, courted vendors who preyed on the weakness and returned home with three or four times less than what other organised milk producers make from their toil.
“As a united group, no one will short-change us again. If you approach a buyer as an individual, they get your produce at the price of their choice. In a group, you stand your ground on a price you believe your product attracts,” Mkochi narrates.
Such confidence excites Agcom National CoordinatorTeddie Nakhumwa, who envisages small-scale and emerging farmers yielding maximum returns from their labour.
He admits adding value to farm produce and producing enough to respond to the requirements of end-markets and buyers is something few farmers are able to do in Malawi.
“That is why we are saying that, apart from giving these farmers grants so that they improve on their production, they should also get the skills on adding value to their produce. They should be able to negotiate for better prices as groups rather than individuals,” Nakhumwa says.
He says it would be disheartening to see farmers who are getting the grants sliding back to their old ways after the project phases out in 2023.
According to Nakhumwa, the gradual mindset change among the farmers is what heralds a bright future beyond the time they are being propped up by Agcom.
“We believe that, once the farmers make gains from their investments, they will not abandon them. Through the trainings that we give them, they are able to gauge how much they have pumped into their ventures and how much they should get in return,” he explains.
Msuku and other members of Salima Dairy Farmers Cooperative agree that, having been equipped with negotiating skills, no buyer can rip them off again.
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. He believes that quality reporting is critical in bringing positive change in communities. Alick is the Southern Africa Development Community journalist of the year (2020) in the television category. Follow him on Twitter @aponje