For more than a decade, Janet Nkhoma, 53, enjoyed the status of being one of the most successful soya bean farmers in Namwera Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Mkanda in Mchinji.
Yet at household level, Nkhoma could not successfully provide, let alone meet the nutritional needs of her family, which comprises eight children besides herself and the husband.
Educating the children proved the most difficult task for the family to undertake.
“I discovered that, although I used to harvest huge tonnage of soya beans, groundnuts and maize, vendors were not offering competitive prices to enable me to meet the needs of my family,” she explains.
Nkhoma could certainly be one in a million other farmers who have been struggling for years to improve their income and food security in spite of making huge contributions to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
This development has largely been blamed on a lack of access to competitive markets and failure by the farmers themselves to collaborate when selling their produce.
Rural Livelihoods and Economic Enhancement Programme (RLEEP) national programmes director Dixon Ngwende says a consensus among development practitioners and academicians is that improving market access for smallholders will lead to improvement in income and food security.
Ngwende notes that this notwithstanding, market failures often limit smallholders’ ability to be linked to markets.
He says to address these challenges; RLEEP has been mobilising farmers to explore other market interventions, such as collective marketing as a strategy to reduce the risks of market participation and low prices.
“This proposal synthesises the key lessons learned from the use of collective action as institutional arrangement to improve market access for smallholder producers of agricultural products with insights from other countries,” he narrates.
And in recognition of this, farmers under Nsembwe Cooperative in Mchinji have shifted their focus from supply-based farming to demand-driven ones where farmers produce for markets instead of trying to market what they produce.
Nkhoma, who is a member of the cooperative, says farmers under this cooperative are growing groundnuts, soya bean and sunflower, which they collectively sell to Lakeshore Agro Processors Enterprise (LAPE).
She says apart from offering farmers competitive market opportunities, LAPE— which is a partner of RLEEP in Mchinji—provides them with financial assistance, which farmers access if they want to buy certified and improved farm inputs and seeds.
The lady farmer emphasises that collective marketing has helped farmers in Mchinji to realise increased incomes such that she is now able to pay K60 000 as fees for her child currently pursuing studies at SOS Technical College in the capital, Lilongwe.
Nkhoma is also paying K30 000 per term for her daughter who is in secondary school.
“Over and above that, family nutrition has significantly improved since we started selling our agricultural produce as a unit,” explains Nkhoma.
Kachimwa Study Group chairperson in Mchinji, Steven Soko, discloses that farmers’ own motivation, favourable environment and the inclusion of social activities in the implementation of group activities are some of the key lessons they have learnt from collective marketing.
Soko further states that collective action is helping members of a group or cooperative to always come together to share market knowledge, sell together and develop business opportunities.
“Collective marketing has proven effective in improving group annual production and promoting unity and economic independence among members. Our group, for instance, has opened a bank account from which members can access funds for buying certified seed, attending to pressing family problems, among others,” he explains.
He sums up by stressing that this is a clear indication that collective action should not only be promoted for economic gains.
“But on social benefits as well since the implication is collective marketing is more likely to be successful when social factors which bind the people together are included in its implementation,” Soko says.