Money on rocky hills
The gravelly and hilly terrain on the eastern side of Mafinga Hills in Chitipa District makes regular farming activities nearly impossible.
Crop fields are far apart, often in low-lying spots without the rocks.
So, extensive pieces of land are crowded with trees which are past the worst because tilling would be a difficult task and because local rulers impose huge fines on those who chop them down carelessly.
But in those dense jungles, communities find what keeps them moving.
“The trees make beekeeping simple and successful,” says John Sibale, secretary of Chisenga Honey Cooperative whose members come from villages east of the hills located astride the Malawi-Zambia border.
For over a decade now, the cooperative has been gathering honey from where cash to improve their livelihoods has certainly flowed.
The honey, which Sibale says is of top quality, even dresses shelves of shops as far away as Lilongwe, where the cooperative’s biggest buyer, Maluso Union, is.
“Now, we want to be Malawi’s biggest honey producers. We want to reach a point where we can even take our honey across the borders and we are determined to achieve that,” Sibale states.
Clad in their sting-resistant bee suits and biodegradable nitrile gloves, members of the cooperative regularly visit the sites of their hives to repair or replace damaged parts.
They also have to ensure that there is water within a short distance from the hives as honeybees are required to forage for such, apart from nectar and pollen, for them to produce the sweet sticky liquid.
“We were trained in how to take care of our hives and the bees. We have to ensure that the honey is not contaminated and we are very good at that,” Sibale brags.
The cooperative, which used to produce less than 2,000 kilogrammes (kg) per year for all its members’ diligence, was constantly searching for just a little push to break the barriers.
It turned out they got a massive shove.
“We will now be producing over 67,000kg of honey per year by increasing the number of beehives from 753 to 2,500 because we are being assisted by Agcom [Agriculture Commercialisation Project]. We will also upgrade our processing machine and buy more bee suits,” Sibale says.
The group, which started in 2004 as an association and got registered as a cooperative in 2010 and once won a trophy as the best honey producer at a national trade fair in Blantyre, already got the first tranche of K17.8 million from Agcom.
The total grant which Chisenga Honey Cooperative is expected to receive is K69 million. They are supposed to mobilise 30 percent to fully access the grant.
The arrangement, according to Agcom National Coordinator Teddie Nakhumwa, ensures recipients of the grants own the support and do not get anything on a silver platter.
“Most people are used to just getting things for free. When they contribute something, they become more determined to succeed,” Nakhumwa, who remains optimistic that the project will meet its target of creating at least 300 productive alliances by the time it winds up in two years, states.
He admits that the initiative can only thrive if there is drastic mindset change and hopes groups that have successfully met the requirements for accessing their grant from the $95 million World Bank loan will inspire others to do the same.
According to Nakhumwa, the larger idea is that the farmers should commercialise their endeavours and remain sustainable even beyond the support from Agcom.
“We are also helping them to have linkages with markets. They should sell their produce as groups; in such a way, they have strong bargaining power,” he says.
A member of Chisenga Honey Cooperative, Marietta Nyondo, agrees with such sentiments.
“When we offer our honey as a group, we cut costs apart from putting our feet down on prices. It means the buyers have little choice”.
The money she has made from her portion—by supplying honey to the cooperative, from her own hive—has prompted her to be particular about what she eats and where she lives.
She is positive that, with more coming from the increased hives for the cooperative, she will live the last years of her life a satisfied woman.
“I am ageing but I always ensure there is good food in my house. I am a widow but I am not struggling. I have a good house and I will ensure I make it more beautiful,” Nyondo says.
She hails the desire by Agcom that more women should benefit from its project.
“No woman should be left behind in this age. I cannot remain behind when my friends are rising up and progressing,” she says, a smile flitting across her face.
And as the sun’s rays grow stronger, Nyondo and other members of the cooperative opt for some scant shade outside the jungles where bees are preparing what the people are waiting for to harvest.
In those thick woodlands on rugged and rocky landscapes, there is money.
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