Poor farmers strike deals to keep away vendors
The toil is devastating! Day after day, he has to tend to his crops which face threats from all the forces.
The dry spells threaten the yield. There are also wild animals which would love to have a share of the maturing groundnuts whose final, stout pods are a testament of the care that they received.
The scarecrows are just what they are. They cannot keep away thieves who have been waiting to harvest the groundnuts a few moments before the owner does.
But when all the hurdles have finally been defeated; all the sweat having now dried, a gentle smile ought to flit across the face of Phillip Jalale of Kanyama Extension Planning Area (EPA) in one of Dedza’s remotest locations.
However, the final story is that of misery once more. The toil gets undercut in the mounting tricks of vendors who dangle millions of kwacha in the face of the farmers, only to leave behind a few thousand kwachas.
“I have been growing a lot of crops including maize and groundnuts for over a decade now but the gains haven’t been satisfactory,” says Jalale who is a member of Dedza Smallholder Farmers Association.
Many other local farmers in the area and beyond, who find themselves in a vicious circle where poverty begets more poverty, replicate this tale of pain.
“Vendors seem good-natured at first. They offer us money before the crops even mature and when they return during harvesting time, we discover the prices which they offered us are far less than the average ones on the market.
“But all this happens because of poverty. The vendors capitalise on our individual needs and often prefer to buy from individuals because they know it is easy to manipulate us,” laments Jalale.
He wishes government and other stakeholders found a way of assisting poor farmers by, among other things, setting up markets where the farm produce could be sold in bulk before vendors’ invasions.
Reports of vendors camping in rural areas to buy farm produce from poor farmers become common during the harvesting period each year, but with the liberalisation of Malawi’s trade system and the free-economy status, it appears little or nothing can be practically and legally done to stop this.
But in a way, Jalale’s desire and those of many other smallholder farmers seem to have finally found their redeemers.
Feed the Future (FTF), a United States government’s global initiative to sustainably reduce poverty and hunger, is linking ‘big’ buyers with smallholder farmers through its project called Integrated Nutrition with Value Chains (INVC).
And last week, INVC organised a buyers’ tour in Dedza’s two EPAs namely Chafumbwa and Kanyama where deals were mutually struck between the latter and the farmers.
“It is not easy for us smallholder farmers to transport our produce to towns and cities where the industries are. That is why we fall prey to vendors, but with the big buyers promising to buy our produce, vendors can go elsewhere,” says Lonely Tchale of Lifidzi Smallholders Farmers Association in Chafumbwa EPA.
She adds that the coming of the buyers will further strengthen the association because a ready market will be ideal in inspiring coordination and trust.
And she, just like chairperson of the association Hebron Kapalamula, hopes that the association will further metamorphose into a cooperative, which would easily access big loans from financial institutions.
But why connecting the farmers and the buyers in the first place?
“It offers a good opportunity for the buyers, big buyers of course, to appreciate the quantity of produce that the farmers have and the farmers have the chance to negotiate better prices until both parties reach a mutual ground,” says INVC Value Chain Competitiveness Specialist, Henry Gaga.
He adds: “For instance, on this tour we have big industries like Transglobe, Sunseed Oil [Company], Exagris, Estrell Trading and Afri-Nut [Malawi]. These companies and many others want hundreds of thousands of metric tonnes of groundnuts and soya beans, yet the farmers often don’t know how to link up with them.”
He adds that in six other districts namely Lilongwe, Ntcheu, Mchinji, Balaka, Mangochi and Machinga, INVC advances agriculture productivity and value chain competitiveness for the two value chains, apart from improving community capacity to prevent under-nutrition.
“We want these smallholder farmers to grow their economy. They must earn what they deserve. In Dedza, through our partner, [the Catholic Development Commission in Malawi (Cadecom)], farmers are being taught new local technologies to improve production,” says Gaga.
According to Gaga, through the USAID-funded project, farmers have learnt a lot regarding how they can undertake some very basic activities including grading so that they have quality produce which will attract better earnings.
But is it just about producing, selling and sitting back to starve? Why should Dedza, a district where agricultural development reaches impressive levels, have a pathetic nutrition status?
“It is because people sell almost everything and are left with little or nothing at all,” says Dedza District Agricultural Development Officer (Dado) Owen Kumwenda. “But a lot of efforts are being put in nutrition interventions and we hope that things will improve.”
In fact, even Gaga states that INVC further advocates nutrition interventions because nutrition statuses of households are closely connected to their economic growth and food security.
Kumwenda paints a lighter picture of crop estimates in the district. He sees a slight increase from last year’s and wishes farmers learnt a lesson so that they will not sell all their produce again. That is his humble prayer.
According to the smallholder farmers in Kanyama and Chafumbwa EPAs, vendors are also to blame for the grim nutrition levels in the district “since they buy everything before it is even ready.” Again and again, poverty begets poverty.
And one potential buyer, Cecilia Rice who is director of Estrell Trading, a company that uses groundnuts as its raw materials, says the partnerships with the farmers are crucial for mutual benefit.
“In their associations, it becomes easier for us to buy in bulk and beneficial for them because the money will be given out at once. The partnership is also significant for the farmers because through it, we have managed to discuss with them the quality of produce what we want,” says Rice.
But as the issue of vendors ‘stealing’ from smallholder farmers comes to the fore again, one big question pops up: the ‘unscrupulous’ traders buy the produce at higher prices and sell them at lower ones to the big industries; doesn’t this fail to make any business sense?
The farmers themselves have an answer.
“The vendors manipulate the scales such that a quantity that has weighed 20 kilogrammes on a scale that has not been tampered with will weigh 15 kg on a vendor’s scale. That’s why the vendors refuse to buy small quantities like 5 kg because they know there will be no change on the scale,” says Ivy Chilinga of Kanyama EPA.
In their desperation, says Chilinga, the farmers still sell their produce to the vendors whom they call thieves, in spite of the eccentric mathematics involved.
“But with the partnership that we now have with these big buyers, vendors have no chance. We have suffered for too long and we believe time for our redemption has come. We just hope that the buyers will keep the promise.”
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