The vast spans of tilled fields in Malingunde, an area stretching across part of Lilongwe South, personify their owners’ readiness for the rains on the horizon.
Madalo Chinkombero is one of the farmers whose families have already prepared their gardens ahead of the rainy season.
She admits that the past years, weeks leading up to December used to bring despair to her family of six as they struggled to acquire fertiliser and seed in time for their crop field, which is the size of half a football pitch.
“For many years, we were not well prepared for the rainy season. So, when rains fell, it was like something that had happened without notice and we could then start scampering around looking for money for buying fertiliser and seed,” Chinkombero says.
She reckons that despite belonging to a village savings and loans association (VSLA), which was formed in 2009, the money was often directed to other requirements, some of them mere luxuries.
So, her crop field failed to give enough yield for her family.
That was also the case with other members of the VSLA named Nakungubwi that Chinkombero belongs to.
“Because we spent most of our savings on items such as kitchen utensils or clothes, which we already had in abundance, our yields were abysmal and hunger could bite hard,” another member of the group, Mary Tchaya, says.
Now the story of these women, who are part of a group of 6,000 farmers in Malingunde Extension Planning Area (EPA), is changing.
In their respective VSLAs, they have saved a cumulative amount of K41 million, which they intend to use for purchasing seed and fertiliser from Agriculture Direct, an agro-dealer that is at their beck and call.
“The rains are approaching and we are not worried at all. In 11 months, we have saved enough for the inputs and everything is in place,” Chinkombero says.
African Fertiliser and Agribusiness Partnership (Afap), with funding from Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has linked Agriculture Direct with the farmers in Malingunde, who also access extension services from a private extension officer working with the agro-dealer.
In the model, the farmers are also equipped with savings skills and have the agro-dealer delivering in their backyards the inputs they purchase in bulk.
“Even though the agro-dealer has his shop several kilometres away from our area, when we purchase the inputs as a group, he brings them to us,” Tchaya says.
To reach more people, the private extension officer works with Community Agribusiness Advisers (CAAs) who ensure farmers such as Tchaya and Chinkombero have the necessary tools and skills for improving production.
In the private extension and CAA model, Afap has been supporting 22 agro-dealers across the country who are working with 35 private extension officers and 1,280 CAAs.
A CAA responsible for Gunde Section in Malingunde EPA, Elank Kalonga, is proud that his services are bringing significant changes in the way farmers do their business.
“They used to plant recycled seed and failed to harvest enough until we started advising them about the importance of certified seed. Now they are able to produce up to three times on the same pieces of land,” Kalonga says.
He admits that the skills, which he gains from Miragie Stand, a private extension officer working with Agriculture Direct, are also improving his own farming business.
Commissions that he gets after mobilising farmers to purchase their inputs from the agro-dealer also motivate him and other CAAs to put more effort in their work.
Afap Malawi Country Director, Sheila Keino, cites farmers’ struggles in accessing quality seed as one of the elements that weaken their agriculture production.
“That is why we link them with agro-dealers, certified by the government, through the extension agents, who also work with CAAs, so that they can access quality inputs,” Keino says.
She praises the adoption of the private sector extension model—where one extension agent is able to work with 5,000 farmers through the CAAs—saying it has simplified the process of reaching out to more farmers at once.
Agra Malawi Country Manager, Sophie Chitedze, also observes that linking farmers with agro-dealers and providing them with extension services within their communities is proving to be critical for increasing production.
“What we have seen in Malingunde is that the farmers are determined to have the inputs for their gardens. They already have the money and are just waiting for the agro-dealer to bring seed and fertiliser to them,” Chitedze says.
Her entreaty is that there should be structured markets across the country so that farmers can sell their produce without being short-changed by vendors.
Chitedze then discloses that in Agra’s next strategy, which rolls out next year, the farmer-centred organisation will also be looking at markets while seeking to further increase incomes and resilience for smallholder farmers.
“We want to enhance the integration of the farmers into strengthened national and regional markets, apart from increasing productivity of diversified value chains. Farmers must benefit from their efforts,” she explains.
Chinkombero is optimistic that she will benefit from the structured markets as she pushes to also broaden her crop field owing to more savings she intends to make next year.
“I am fired up. The certified inputs that I am getting this time, together with the modern farming methods I have learnt, will obviously give my family a bumper harvest,” 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