Driven by a desire to contribute towards food security in her community and financial independence, Chrissie Katundu grows cassava, processes it into flour and produces cassava bread, wine, cakes, juice and other related products. She talks to our correspondent Joy Khakona.
Through hard-work and community mobilisation, her enterprise, Alongelele, has helped more than 1200 households. She has managed to send her children to international schools from the same business. Her products are exported to as far as the United States of America, where she was also awarded for her hard work and excellence.
In addition to successfully farming cassava, she started a cane furniture manufacturing business with the support and training offered by National Association of Business Women (Nabw).
She has also served as a ward councillor for Domasi, where she lives.
Give us your background.
I come from Malemia Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Malemia in Zomba. I did my education at Nsondole and Zomba CCAP primary schools before doing my secondary education at Our Lady of Wisdom and Mary Mount. I was cross-transferred to Likuni Girls Secondary School where I finished my Form Four. Thereafter, I went for secretarial studies at the Polytechnic in Blantyre.
How many are you in your family?
We are just two of us now — I and my sister. Others died some time back.
How was your growing up like?
Well, it was not rosy at all. My late brother, Gomile Kuntumanji, used to pay for my school fees while I was at Our Lady of Wisdom. Unfortunately, he was arrested during Dr Kamuzu Banda’s reign and spent 21 years in detention. As you are aware, when one had dissenting views towards the one party government at that time, you were regarded as a rebel. After the arrest, I had no one to pay school fees for me. I was dismissed from school. They said I was related to a ‘rebel’. Then I started selling timber at ITG while in Blantyre to pay for my school fees at Likuni Girls Secondary School. When I was forced to drop from school at home due to lack of fees, the headmistress at Likuni assisted me quite a lot. I secretly wrote and passed my Malawi School Certificate of Examinations (MSCE).
Tell us about your immediate family.
I am happily married and I have four children. My husband has been encouraging me quite a lot and I owe my success to him.
How did you get involved in cultivating cassava?
I did research and experimented the results between 1998 and 1999. I got involved in cultivating cassava because this type of business was not common in those days.
I involved communities and formed five clubs. Currently, the clubs have multiplied to 65. I have also travelled to Greece for income generating courses to beef up my knowledge.
What are the challenges you met when the business was just starting?
I had very little cassava to start with. So, I involved some friends and started multiplying it using the best methods of planting. It was not as easy and straight forward as it sounds. But now I am happy that I have two hectares of cassava garden, among others.
Tell us about the enterprise that is empowering over 1200 households.
I am the founder and executive director of Chinangwa, Mbatata and Root Tuber Enterprise (Cmrte). Through the experience I have gained in the cassava cultivation enterprise, I decided to impart my knowledge to my community. I have helped a lot of people taking into consideration the way I have been brought up and went through. Most of the people are married and responsible people in their respective societies.
How have you dealt with the negative criticism that most businesswomen get?
Every person has the right to his or her opinion. Some encourage you while others want to put you down. However, I have persevered through it all and moved on with my business to become financially independent.
What have you achieved with this cassava business?
Well, I have achieved a lot. My enterprise is producing high quality flour for baking bread and other confectionaries. I am proud to be the founder and director of CMRTE. We have a website www.cmrte.com where people can see what we are doing.
Tell us about the orphans, some of whom you have been able to send to international schools.
When my late brother was in detention, I raised his children until they grew up and completed their education. Some are outside this country doing very well.
How do you want your family to remember you?
I would like my family to remember me for what I have invested and done for them.
What awards have you so far received?
I have received awards locally and internationally. I got recognition by various people through National Association of Business Women (Nabw). I got international recognition at the United Nations after they introduced my name during their conferences.
How did it feel to get such recognition?
Well, I felt good. It was tough, but getting international recognition made me feel great, especially since I am a mere villager.
How can women be successful in business?
Women can only be successful if they aim high. They should not look down upon themselves and think that only men can do such type of business.
What type of food and dressing do you like?
I like traditional foods and dress national attire as you can see me.
Any last comment you may have?
I ask those who are willing to assist to come and help rural farmers by buying their products. We meet every Tuesday afternoon at our Domasi site, just after the police station, along the Zomba-Mangochi road.