Sparse cotton fields lining up the sides of earth roads and footpaths in Traditional Authority (T/A) Ngabu in Chikwawa are a testament of a people’s frantic quest to earn a living.
But they also lay bare gaps that exist among smallholder farmers who often lack organised markets, farm machinery and transportation means to prop up their farming business.
So, they quietly stick to small gardens which they can manage to take care of and whose produce they have little troubles finding markets for.
Now the Agriculture Commercialisation (Agcom) project that is raising the all-round stakes of smallholder farmers working in groups is compelling them to expand their cotton fields in a bid to ultimately commercialise their venture.
“Farming has not been profitable at all, at least to some of us. Using hand-held hoes is backbreaking,” says Melenia Kondowe, a member of Minyali Cotton Marketing Cooperative.
The group takes its name from first syllables of three primary cooperatives—Mitole, Nyasamba and Linga—scattered across four T/As in the Shire Valley district.
“We work together and every member contributes K400 every month to raise our capital. But despite that we are organised in our ventures, we have been facing challenges which Agcom is now addressing,” Kondowe says.
Her secondary cooperative has a membership of 669 males and 204 females with 140 of them being young people.
They want to vastly increase their cotton hectarage which now stands at 910 and are hopeful that more smallholder farmers will join the group after seeing what others are reaping.
“In our proposal to Agcom, we particularly sought a tractor, a warehouse and a lorry. They responded positively. In their arrangement, we are supposed contribute 30 percent while Agcom gives us 70 percent of the K105 million that forms the matching grant,” says Minyali Cotton Marketing Cooperative chairperson, Yesaya Antonio.
The group is expecting to procure a lorry at the start of their formal venture with Agcom— where they have also entered into an agreement with cotton buying company Afrisian Ginning Limited—to ease transportation challenges.
They meet regularly wherever they deem convenient to churn out ideas for progress and it is paying dividends, according to Antonio.
“In the agreement with Agcom, we have also learnt different ways of caring for our cotton. The value obviously goes up. With the cotton buying company challenging that they are ready to absorb as much as we can produce, we are going all out to ensure the tractor motivates us to increase the hectarage,” he explains.
The Agcom project links together producer organisations, service providers, including research and extension and off-takers in a value chain, in a concept known dubbed productive alliance.
Before Agcom came in, members of Minyali Cooperative were struggling to optimally reap from their toil due to low access to quality seed, complementary farm inputs and the absence of facilities for aggregation and marketing.
“Labour costs have also been very high. Now, with the machinery, this will be a thing of the past. We intend to increase access to high quality cotton seed for 2,500 members by 2023 and increase production in metric tonnes tenfold. We are currently producing around 340 metric tonnes,” Antonio explains.
The group, registered with the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism, also envisages a dramatic increase in production from 550 kilogrammes (kg) to 1,200 kg per hectare in three years.
For its members, the provision of mechanised land preparation is billed to expedite production and reduce labour costs.
These ideas won the favour of Agcom which promptly placed on the table K80.9 million—for its 70 percent contribution—from which Minyali Cooperative will be drawing whenever they want to procure something.
National Coordinator, Teddie Nakhumwa, says the $95 million World Bank-funded project principally seeks to commercialise ventures of already established farmers operating as cooperatives.
“We want to work with farmers who are serious; farmers who are organised in their cooperatives because cooperatives have a business mentality. We are not financing needs, but opportunities,” Nankhumwa explains.
He says the loan has to be managed prudently because it will have to be repaid by Malawians who will have to look back at what it has accomplished.
Nankhumwa is optimistic that beyond the project’s six-year timeframe, Malawi will continue to benefit economically as the supported farmers will have established diverse ways of sustaining their enterprises.
“We want to create ongoing benefits and generate more revenue from exports. We are also contributing to the national food base,” he states, adding that the project which has a national coverage targeting all competitive agriculture value chains, aims to support at least 300 farmer cooperatives and 100,000 farming households.
And Kondowe is proud that her cooperative’s pitch to Agcom is already pushing her farming enterprise forward.
She says: “The moment the tractor arrives, I will be able to work on a vast piece of land in a short time. It is the desire of every serious farmer to do better tomorrow than you do today and it is becoming a reality for us.”
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