The fanfare that characterised the handover of the sugarcane juice processing machinery to Chiyembekezo Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) in Mbera Village in Balaka is slowly giving way to suspicions of ill-will and betrayal.
Ill-will because the machinery that One Village One Product (Ovop) secretariat gave to the group early last year is not what members had applied for.
Besides, what Ovop is demanding from beneficiaries of the unsolicited machinery is beyond the villagers’ reach.
“We feel shortchanged. We applied for the cooking oil processing machine only to be given a different one at a loan of over K500 000 (US$1 196) before interests. They also loaned us two plastic pails, two knives and a cup from which they are claiming over K147 000 (US$351 674). These interests are very unjustifiable and we feel it’s pure theft, which government needs to protect us against,” emphasised Anne Kachepa, the group chairperson.
Kachepa said since the machinery was delivered, the group has not been able to make the best use of it due to lack of raw materials.
She said the group’s initial plan was to venture into the production of cooking oil because the area produces a lot of groundnuts.
“But we don’t know how they arrived at a sugarcane juice processing machine, which we’re failing to utilise because there are no resources [sugarcane] in this area,” she explained.
The Ovop programme was first initiated in the 1970s in Oita Prefecture in Japan as a community-centred, and demand driven regional economic development approach.
The approach intends to achieve economic development through value addition to locally generated resources, through processing, quality control, packaging design and marketing promotion.
The Malawi Government adopted the concept after a series of visits to Oita by various government officials and some reciprocal visits to Malawi by Ovop delegations from Japan with the support of Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica).
The concept was eventually launched in November 2003 and was followed by the establishment of the Ovop national secretariat in Lilongwe.
The vision of the initiative is to economically empower communities to enable them generate their own wealth by adding value to goods and services that are marketable in order to reduce wealth disparities, according to Ovop website.
However, Weekend Nation investigations have proven that the country is far from benefiting from the fruits of the project.
In Balaka, Ntcheu, Mwanza and Mulanje, cooperatives are closing shops even before producing a single bottle of juice; leaving members of the cooperatives desperate as they have to settle Ovop loans from their pockets.
Development specialist who introduced the Ovop idea to Malawi, Dr John Chikago, said the flop of the project manifests government’s poor implementation of the programme.
Chikago argued that although Ovop is the most suitable instrument for fighting poverty in developing countries, Malawians should forget possibilities of ever generating wealth through this model because of the political and administrative challenges the project is embroiled in.
He said the project cannot work in a centralised state such as Malawi.
“Unless Malawi is decentralised into provinces, we shouldn’t expect much from this concept. Ovop projects must operate like a public trust just as is the case with the National Initiative for Civic Education
(Nice) Trust for us to achieve maximum benefits from it. This is how our friends in Japan are running theirs and they’re working very well,” he stated.
He also criticised government for limiting the project to agriculture only, saying Oita, on which the concept was modelled, integrated various sectors such as pottery, traditional dance troupes and fish products to maximise benefits.
Chikago disclosed that his intention when he brought the concept to Malawi was to revolutionalise various industries such as wood furniture, bottling of spring water from local rivers such as Lichenya in Mulanje, promotion of traditional dance troupes and assisting musicians to market their music outside the country.
He also disclosed that he wanted Ovop establish showrooms in cities and towns where local producers could be displaying and selling their finished products.
“And in all this, I wanted Ovop to play a supervisory role in ensuring that standards are adhered to by producers,” explained Chikago.
On the programme’s administration, the former ambassador observed that government made a serious mistake to politicise the project through self-appointment of former President Bakili Muluzi to head the project as its chairperson with the then Minister of Economic Planning and Development, late Bingu wa Mutharika, deputising him.
At the time, Mutharika had just been picked from oblivion to be United Democratic Front (UDF) torchbearer in 2004 General Elections.
But the defunct National Democratic Alliance (NDA) also claimed ownership of the concept and accused UDF of preempting NDA’s manifesto to ‘cheat people that UDF had better ideas’.
Chikago said political wrangling impacted negatively on Ovop projects because most Malawians failed to draw a line between politics and development.
In her thesis for her Collaborative Master of Science Degree in Agricultural and Applied Economics (CMAAE) at Egerton University, Juliana Immaculate Chidumu, attributed that although government had introduced the programme to fight poverty, no effort had been made to evaluate the programme and its activities; hence creating an information gap.
Chidumu argued that this, too, might have contributed to the failure of the project. According to the study, prompt actions are necessary in several fronts if Ovop is to make an effective impact among local communities.
“First, spatial connectivity needs to be improved so that Ovop producers can participate in national and global value chains. The brand-making and e-commerce could also be promising areas as demonstrated by the Thai success,” said Chidumu.
Ovop national coordinator, Kamia Kaluma-Sulumba, dmitted the project is facing challenges to deliver its expected results.
Kaluma-Sulumba singled out lack of certification of Ovop products as one of the major limiting factors. She said securing Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS) certificates for its products is the biggest challenge the project is struggling to surmount.
This, in essence, means that farmers cannot display or sell their products in shops across the country let alone export them after adding value to them.
But the national coordinator heaped the blame on her procurement team for issuing wrong [unsolicited] machinery and claiming unjustified interests from groups.
“My office isn’t responsible for issuing machinery to the groups. So, if groups are being issued with the machinery they never applied for, the procurement team must be in a better position to explain how that happened,” said Kaluma-Sulumba.
Ovop project assistant cooperative liaison officer for Balaka and Ntcheu, Francisco Sadyamtambe, confirmed receiving complaints bordering on wrong machinery and unjustified interests.
“And Chiyembekezo Sugarcane Juice Processing Group is one of the groups. I’ve already forwarded their concerns to the secretariat,” said Sadyamtambe.
Chikago observed that some of the challenges Ovop is facing are induced by overzealous politicians who are deliberately diluting the standards and legal requirements just to gain political mileage at the expense of national development.
“The initiative can still inspire the local economy if ruling parties stopped utilising it for political gains. However, experience has shown that every ruling party politicises Ovop projects, a behaviour which compromises the standards set by the MBS.
“And instead of Ovop being perceived as a community economic empowerment initiative, it’s being viewed as a campaign tool for a party in authority and, consequently, the communities become polarised,” stressed Chikago.
He also explained that politicisation of the project has disenfranchised members of opposition political parties thereby limiting it to members of the ruling party.
He recommended that the project be detached from the Executive branch of government and be left to operate as a public trust like the National Initiative for Civic Education (NICE) with mandate to solicit funds from any source.
Chikago said just like NICE, Ovop should be left to apply for funding from government and non-governmental organisations for its programmes depending on merit and quality of programmes.
Kachepa and her colleagues said unless these challenges are resolved, they have every reason to perceive Ovop as a cash cow for government.
In fact, it has robbed the villagers of the little confidence they had that Mbera will one day become an industrialised village.
“We feel the concept was hatched to fleece us of the little resources we have through unjustified interests and leave us poorer,” she explained.