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Working to improve farmers’ livelihoods

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Most farmers in Malawi complain of low prices at the market and this has serious consequences on their livelihoods especially considering that over 80 percent of people in Malawi are subsisting on farming. Why is a market symposium for farmers significant?

Smallholder farmers across the globe produce food for a substantial proportion of the world’s population. Yet, smallholder farmers especially in sub-Saharan Africa, including here in Malawi, overcome considerable constraints such as low prices. If the smallholder farmers continue doing their business as usual, they are bound to be further marginalised with increasing globalization, where value chains are becoming highly concentrated and integrated. As part of the community outreach and overall goal of linking smallholders to the market, farmers’ market symposia like the just concluded one held at Lisasadzi Residential Training Centre in Kasungu district (26-28 June 2017) are aimed at providing a platform where farmers/farmer organisations can interface with other value chain players including buyers, processors, transporters and input dealers.

These symposia help farmers/ farmer organisations acquire a better and in-depth understanding of the market in terms of actors, demands by time of the year, quality standards, underlying transaction costs and contractual arrangements available for more predictable and sustainable business ventures. Furthermore, the symposia provide an excellent platform where common myths about the market can be demystified and offer opportunity for confidence building between the smallholders and other actors. Market symposia are actually precursors towards market-led agricultural production because partnerships among the smallholders/farmer organisations and other market actors are forged.

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Why do we still have problems of low prices at the market in the country even when the supply is low, for example, if you consider the situation of tobacco this year?

Smallholder farmers predominantly depend on family labour and primarily produce for consumption with occasional opportunistic sells to meet some basic needs. Most of them do not treat farming as a business and as such, they end up being price takers other than setters. This could be attributed to some inherent constraints that are suppressing the prices. The smallholder farmers are geographically dispersed and their supplies are small and inconsistent to attract traders. Where traders are able to collect the produce, they require higher margins to cover the transaction costs. As a result, many of the markets function poorly or only very locally with limited access to markets and services.

In absence of any form of organised group marketing, smallholder farmers cannot benefit from any economies of scale with their small land holdings. The low levels of productivity, which reflect largely suboptimal use of inputs and insufficient adoption of good agricultural practices and technologies in turn limits the quantity and quality of commodities reaching the market. Massive environmental degradation and effects of climate change like extreme weather conditions and upsurge of transboundary pests further exacerbate this situation.

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FAO mandate, as I know it, is to increase agricultural productivity, improve food security and nutrition and fight rural poverty. How does the market symposium fit in this framework?

Indeed, globally, FAO creates and shares critical information about food, agriculture and natural resources in the form of global public goods. But this is not a one-way flow. We play a connector role, through identifying and working with different partners with established expertise, and facilitating a dialogue between those who have the knowledge and those who need it. By turning knowledge into action, FAO links the field to national, regional and global initiatives in a mutually reinforcing cycle. By joining forces, we facilitate partnerships for food and nutrition security, agriculture and rural development between governments, development partners, civil society and the private sector.

In Malawi, for example, FAO has a Country Programme Framework that defines the key priority areas for its collaboration with the Government. The market symposium like the one we had forms part of the broader ongoing efforts to strengthen smallholder market-oriented agricultural production.

How important is agricultural extension to fighting problems of low prices in the country and what is the farmer’s role?

Prices are an integral component of the market. In order to achieve the goal of market-oriented agricultural production, smallholders have to adjust their farm management activities to the opportunities and demands of the market. Therefore, agricultural extension services play a critical role in helping the farmers appreciate the need to treat their farming as a business and manage their farms more effectively. This is all about making decisions on the farm to produce for profit and the role of extension services is to help them understand why they make the choices they make and how to improve their decision making skills in order to increase their farm income. Framers must be equipped with the requisite farm management tools in order to make the right decisions including prices.

In what way is the issue of partnerships key to improving agricultural productivity and hence improving farmers’ household income and Nutrition?

At FAO, we believe that strong partnerships are key to zero hunger and ending rural poverty. FAO builds these partnerships to support enabling environments for policies and programmes to achieve transformative change on food security and nutrition, and sustainable agriculture. The Organization works to strengthen the capacities of stakeholders to mobilise resources in order to accelerate efforts aimed at rural transformation and ending hunger and rural poverty. Partnerships do not only harness comparative advantages of the different stakeholders by putting to use of the best available, but also foster a more rational use of the scare resources by minimising duplication.

What does FAO want to see happen in the country in as far as agribusiness or market led agriculture interventions are concerned and what key approach will you use to achieve those goals?

FAO remains firmly committed to working with the government to achieve the aspiration of farmer-led agricultural transformation and commercialisation that entails treating farming as a business. Both the draft Malawi Growth and Development Strategy III and the National Agricultural Policy provide excellent opportunity for increased agricultural market development, agro-processing and value addition, all of which are at the core of the FAO Malawi Country Programme Framework. Likewise, complementary support services like market information systems and agricultural risk management will be crucial for enhancing market-led agricultural production.

Through its Farmer Field School programme across the country, FAO is already collaborating with the Department of Agricultural Extension Service to mainstream practical modules on farming as a business, entrepreneurial skills, village saving and loan scheme, and marketing. The aim is to build capacity and nurture farmer organisations into viable production units for group marketing. As farmers adopt good production and postharvest handling practices, productivity gradually increases contributing to a relative increase in household income. This coupled with better business and entrepreneurial skills and operationalisation of the saving and loan schemes triggers on-and-off income generating livelihood activities with a gradual build-up of selected potential value chains by location.

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