The Bright Future of Agro-Processing

The first thing that strikes you about Chimwemwe Tchunguwe is his beaming smile:  but then he has much to smile about.  Chimwemwe lives at AlickLukhanda village, T/A Mzikubola, a few miles from Jenda Trading Centre.  Like the majorityof the rural population in Malawi, he and his family live from their smallholding.  What differs and immediately strikes you is Chimwemwe’s motivation and the way he clearly looks at his farming activities as his “business venture.”  Like any farmer, he reaps what he sows, and the fruits of his decisions and hard work show themselves as he proudly looks over his beautiful, healthy family, his lovely homestead, both supported by his thriving farming activities.


Chimwemwe realises that crop diversification is critical to his future. He and his family started sunflower business production in 2011/12, and they all have good stories to tell of their exploits in this venture so far. “Last year alone we harvested 300 kilograms of sunflower and sold it all at a fair price of 120 MK per kilogram, which gave us about K36,000 additional family income. This is a lot of money at my level!” he says.


But one may ask, what is driving Chimwemwe’s advances?   “For me I owe this success to my membership with NASFAM and the services I get. I am a member of Champhira Association and sunflower is one of the crops that we now produce and market.”


Since the mid-1990’s, and with core support from donor partners such as the Norwegian Government, NASFAM has been in the forefront of training smallholder farmers to operate their farming activities in a business-like manner.  As part of this approach, smallholder farmers like Chimwemwe are encouraged to work in organised groups for easy access to extension services, market opportunities and increased bargaining power.   “Our Association has an extensive service network made up of field officers and farmer trainers. These provide us with constant on-site practical production training, post-harvest handling and marketing,” he explains.  “We now have experienced the power of numbers as we bulk up our commodities for sale and more recently, as an Association, we have moved up the sunflower value chain to engage in agro-processing.”


Economists have coined the term “value-chain” to refer to the stages of processing which a crop goes through to add value to it. In an agricultural context, one of the key elements is “agro-processing”, a key post-harvest activity that aims at facilitating the market for agricultural commodities and products.  Today, NASFAM, through its farmer members, has helped in the start-up of agro-processing operations in several of the country’s Districts in commodities such as sunflower oil, groundnuts, chillies and livestock feed.


Machine operator at Jenda Sunflower oil processing plantPassing through Jenda in Mzimba, the NASFAM Sunflower Oil production plant easily catches one’s attention as one approaches the Trading Centre travelling North.  It represents development of a local processing capacity which is owned and operated by the District’s NASFAM-affiliated farmer members.


Production of sunflower cooking oil commenced there in October, 2012. Construction of the plant was facilitated when NASFAM secured financial support from the Farm Income Diversification Programme (FIDP) and the activity continues with assistance from Flanders International Cooperation Agency (FICA). These agencies recognised the potential in the farmers to operate themselves a sunflower production plant to allow a stable and reliable market for the high population of sunflower farmers.  Eachday the plant produces about 150 litres of cooking oil which is sold at MK 680 per litre to the local community.


It is smallholders such as Chimwemwe Tchunguwe that make up the NASFAM South Mzimba Association which, of late, has refocused its strategies to be more innovative and productive as it creates market stability for its members.  Since the opening of the oil production plant, farmer members like Chimwemwe are both guaranteed a more reliable market for the crop they grow (allowing them to plan their farming business crop choices with certainty) and can also earn more from their sunflower harvests as value addition is now at a local plant which they themselves own. This is contrary to the past as sunflower was only sold to external vendors and subject to the vagaries of their pricing.


The success story of Chimwemwe and his Association is also repeated in other areas where NASFAM operates.  One encounters the same steps of development within the Central Region.  For instance, NASFAM has members in Ntchisi District where many of its members are growing groundnuts for commercial as well as food and nutrition security.  The District is second only toMchinjiin its production, and contributes stronglyto most of the groundnut products produced by NASFAM and sold countrywide and internationally. Farmers in Ntchisi are also working in organised groups and they have warehouses where their groundnuts are shelled and graded before beingtransported to NASFAM’s groundnut processing plant in Kanengo.


Ntchisi farmers have great plans in mind! They are dreaming “big” and are in the process of transforming their Association into an “Innovation and Productivity Centre” where they will be processing oil from groundnuts locally.  A site for the factory has already been allocated by the District Council and it is planned that production will commence within two years from now.


Farmers in Ntchisi


The growing NASFAM membership of groundnut farmers are working to improve the quality of their produce at all levels – from seed selection, through growing the crop, to harvesting, drying and shelling.  As with any product, producing groundnuts to high quality standards is critical to consolidating sales to higher-value markets, including international and therapeutic food stuffs; markets into which NASFAM already enjoys a growing level of access.  This is all part of the process of moving up the groundnut value-chain.


Consider for example Dalitso, a farmer growing groundnuts.  His harvest is the beginning of a supply process that gets the groundnuts from him to a peanut processor whoproduces roasted peanuts from them which it supplies to a grocery shop which then sells them to us, the consumers.  At each step of the way the groundnuts change hands at a higher price.  Unfortunately for Dalitso, most of the money goes to the processor and the retailer.  So selling his groundnuts in raw form as he does, he sees relatively little of the benefit.  To benefit more from his groundnuts heneeds to participate in some of the agro-processing activities himself.


An example of such involvement is found to the South of Lilongwe. There, smallholder farmers are involved in the operation of their very own livestock feed production facility. The NASFAM-affiliated farmers are the sole raw material providers of the factory which produces chicken and pig feed and these farmers in Lilongwe South can now sell their soya and maize grain to the plant. In addition to offering the suppliers a stable and reliable market, the plant also offersbenefits to the livestock ownersof the surrounding communities by providing for their daily feed needs.


Chicken feed processed in Lilongwe SouthThese and other agro-processing initiatives by NASFAM Associations are showing the way towards achieving what the Malawi Government is trying to do through the Agricultural Sector Wide Approach (ASWAp), whereincommercial agriculture, agro-processing and market development form one of the key focus areas. However, it is clear from the highlighted examples that working with motivated farmers, encouraging them to work in organised groups and adopting a business approach to farming are all prerequisites to success.  It is also necessary to develop partnerships, identify appropriate crops that do well within specific ecological zones, and indeed motivate farmers to think innovatively.  These together provide a point of departure towards smallholder-led value-addition which has potential not only to stabilise agricultural markets and uplift lives of farmers but are also to catalyse job creation in rural areas. However, in all this Government’s role is key, especially in facilitating an enabling policy environment which has appropriate supportive and consistent policies for agro-processing development in Malawi.


Chimwemwe Tchunguwe and thousands of other Malawi smallholder farmers continue to make strides as they work through their Associations within the NASFAM system andas they improve their livelihoods and farming businesses and work to increase tradable agro-products through developing their own Association agro-businesses.  They set an example in their communities and nationally worthy of emulation. At a time when economic hardship is often the headline of the day, they present an encouraging story of what can be achieved with the right personal application and conducive support.