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Thinking Development

By Christopher Guta:

There is no denying the fact that big problems are often solved in bits and pieces. In fact, wise sayings about taking small steps towards solving big problems abound. In the Holy Bible, Zachariah and the people with him were advised not to despise small things, small beginnings.

John F Kennedy once said: “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”

From a business perspective, Demosthenes, a Greek statesman whose sayings provide insight into the politics and culture of ancient Greece during the fourth century said: “Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises.”

That said, there is need to balance small beginnings with big ideas leading to big enterprises. So the title of today’s Thinking Development is: ‘Think big and take small steps’.

The newspaper article that appeared in The Nation in September which reported trade results Malawi obtained at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (Ticad 7) is my inspiration for this entry. The article reported that Malawi Investment and Trade Centre (Mitc) had recorded serious export inquiries for Malawian products worth $1.7 million at Ticad 7. It further said that the inquiries were for products such as macadamia nuts, tea, coffee, baobab powder and honey. I will isolate macadamia as a potential crop which Malawi can think big about and take small steps towards a bigger enterprise.

The latest accessible data shows that in 2017 total global exports of macadamia nuts stood at $785 million. South Africa, the largest exporter, commanded 31 percent of global trade followed closely by Australia at 30 percent. With South Africa on top in Africa, Kenya came second at 11 percent. In fact, Kenya is the third largest producer of Macadamia in the world. Malawi was third in Africa with a 2.5 percent share of global trade valued at $19.6 million. The largest export destination for Malawi’s macadamia was USA which imported 35 percent of Malawi’s macadamia output. With a global trade share of 0.023 percent, Tanzania was the last at continent level.

From a production perspective, macadamia nuts require significant amounts of capital to grow commercially. Areas needing investment include irrigation since the tree crop needs significant amounts of water to support rapid growth after planting. In Malawi, a tree seedling can cost up to K7,000 to purchase from a nursery. Macadamia also requires significant amounts of land since spacing between tree stations can impact on productivity. These barriers to entry into this industry in which Malawi is already a player is the essence of thinking big but taking small steps.

Take the land constraint as a case. While it is correct that the per capita landholding sizes are declining, it is possible to employ a cooperative approach towards production of this high-value cash crop in Malawi where significant parcels of land are underutilised. In Chikwawa, where I come from, one sees tracts of land lying idle. The same applies in other districts in Malawi that have the climatic conditions needed for growing macadamia nuts. The crop can do well in many districts in the Northern Region where land is, comparatively, still available. In any case, the tree crop is amenable to inter-cropping, at least in the early years.

Regarding water, Malawi can conserve water if inadequate extension services are provided for knowledge transfer on rainwater harvesting as is the case in Tanzania where that country’s Centre for Agricultural Mechanisation and Rural Technology provides leadership. Investment capital can be mobilised through innovative financing arrangements. Recently, government announced the establishment of the Agricultural Commercialisation Project as a window for supporting innovation in agriculture and agro-processing.

The question that can be asked then is: What is missing? I think what is missing is organisation. I have said time and time again on this column that development emerges as a society creates new ways of production, consumption and organisation. We need to think big about production of a diversity of crops, especially with the huge threat we face from the ant-smoking lobby which can reduce, if not wipe away, foreign currency earnings from tobacco.

Organising for increasing output of macadamia will entail strengthening the national agricultural research system and asking it to prioritise the crop by making available the key soft and hard production inputs at affordable costs. The structures are there. What is required is a ‘thinking big while ‘taking small steps’ attitude towards resolving the production problems that would arise from time to time. Re-organising and transforming our agriculture is a must for development.

Would it not have been great news to read in the newspaper article I made reference to above that Malawi had secured orders on various commodities at Ticad 7 totalling $100 million or more? That would be something to write about indeed. No?

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