When 52-year-old Kingsley Mwesayani Phiri joined one of the agricultural cooperatives in Nsanje, he was pessimistic of getting any substantial benefits.
But four years down the line, he is all praises to the very decision he was not comfortable with.
Phiri is one of the local farmers reaping benefits of belonging to an agricultural cooperative.
“I can now support my family because I have a sustainable flow of income through my improved agriculture production,” says Phiri, a member of Masenjere Rice Cooperative, which is under the Lower Shire Rice Marketing Cooperative Society in Nsanje.
Before joining the cooperative, he had difficulties accessing farm inputs and lacked skills in modern farming practices.
This affected his production which resulted in low income for the sustenance of his household.
For instance, before joining the cooperative, Phiri realised 10 bags of 50 kilogrammes (kg) of rice on his small piece of land, earning about K75 000.
“This was a loss to me because I spent a lot of time and money on this production,” he says.
Currently, Phiri fetches about K250 000 on the same piece of land as he no longer sells his produce to vendors.
With a membership of 600 people, the cooperative offers opportunities that smallholder farmers could not attain individually.
Notable benefits include bargaining power of selling farm produce as a group and resource sharing that is key in providing investment for agricultural production.
“I have benefited immensely through the cooperative. Production has improved and my home is food secure and financially stable,” says 49-year-old Patrick Jeke, another member of the cooperative.
Jeke, who comes from Namaya Village, Traditional Authority Mlolo, is no longer troubled by unfavourable negotiations with intermediaries and transportation costs.
“The cooperative acts as an integrator. It collects crop produce from members and delivers it in large quantities to markets. We have been ripped off by vendors for quite some time. Now, there is no turning back,” he says.
“The farming methods and bargaining power obtained through the cooperative is key to successful production,” he says.
Equally benefiting are women farmers who are realising their potential in commercial farming through the cooperative.
Christina Mitowe, from the same area, is one of the women farmers into this productive farming.
“Previously, I was limited to practicing subsistence farming. But after joining the cooperative, I am doing more of commercial farming,” she says.
Through the cooperative, farmers have easy access to loans for agricultural production and a bargaining strength in selling their crops.
To make things even better, last week, United States African Development Foundation (USADF), an independent agency of the United States government, awarded Lower Shire Rice Secondary Cooperative Society a grant amounting to $241 738 (about K177 million).
The grant, which will be disbursed in a five-year period, aims at assisting the cooperative to procure farm and production equipment, establish a farm input revolving and crop purchase fund training and technical assistance.
The funds will be directly channelled to the 600 rice producing farmers in Nsanje and Chikwawa districts belonging to the Lower Shire Rice Secondary Cooperative Society which comprises Masenjere, Muona, M’bwazi, Mkhathe and Nkombezi cooperatives.
“This is the beginning of better things for our cooperative. The money will give us an upper hand to execute our duties effectively.
“We are now going to hire professionals who will help us identify markets and get ourselves inputs to boost our production,” says Phiri, who is also chairperson for the cooperative.
He commends USADF and National Cooperative Business Association Cooperative League of United States of America (NCBA CLUSA) for boosting their means for generating revenue and expertise in farming.
USADF country programme coordinator Linda Ndovie Jere says apart from improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, agriculture cooperatives are critical in maintaining the supply of food.
“Our organisation believes in empowering these farmers because they play a greater role in the economy. In cooperatives, farmers are well organised and this has landed them the opportunity to sell their produce to good markets which fetches good returns,” she says.
Apart from Lower Shire Rice Secondary Cooperative Society, USADF is also implementing several economic empowerment projects by providing financial support to various cooperatives nationwide in various sectors.
Some of these sectors include dairy, animal feed manufacturing, sunflower cooking oil production and soya milk processing.
According to NCBA CLUSA country representative James Akai, the cooperative business model has proven to be extremely powerful, both economically and socially, around the world.
“There is evidence of constant growth of the cooperative sector globally. Most of the cooperatives have withstood global financial problems by positively influencing the economic and social well-being of people around the world,” he says.
His sentiments concur with those of Shire Valley Agriculture Development Division programme manager Taurai Mulewa, who is impressed with the impact of cooperative on communities.
“It is important for farmers to belong to a cooperative. This comes with several benefits, including the bargaining power for better markets and prices. Other than this, stakeholders and development partners can easily reach out to farmers when they are organised.
“The coming in of the secondary cooperative which will have a secretariat will, therefore, mean a more sustainable production of rice and more incomes for the farmers. Although the cooperative under this secondary cooperative has been thriving, the issue of markets has been a challenge. We are thus hopeful for the better,” he says.
Hearing stories of these smallholder farmers, it is clear that in cooperatives, there is power.