Listening to Diana Sitima, the managing director of Wambewu, an agro-based enterprise in Chiradzulu, narrate her story, one would be tempted to think she probably grew up in an environment that already allowed her to succeed in life. But Sitima says she has had to pay dearly for her achievements.
What Ã‚Â do you do for a living?
First of all, my name is Diana Sitima from Chiradzulu District. My father was a Malawian of Asian origin and my mother came from Ntcheu District but settled in Chiradzulu. I never knew my father. My mother made sure that I was never introduced to him for fear of him taking me away.
At a very young age, she sent me to live with my grandmother who loved me regardless of my skin colour. I am a farmer and I own pigs, goats, cattle and chickens. I also plant a variety of vegetables, including garlic, ginger, green vegetables, fruits, maize and beans.
Growing up without a father must have been difficult…
It was. I always questioned why I was different from my brothers and sisters but neither my grandfather nor my mother responded. Because of this, I felt very lonely and out of place. While in primary school, my fellow classmates would pull my hair and demand that I cut it off.
People never believed I was Malawian and I was a loner. While I was still in primary school, my mother, who had remarried, lost her husband came back to live with us in Chiradzulu. I knew it was very tough for her as her husbandÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s relations had grabbed all her property and left her penniless with a newly born child. My grandfather gave her a small piece of land to fend for herself. I was a little older and I felt sorry for my mum. All these confused my life even more.
How did you begin the farming journey?
My journey has not been easy, I got first-hand experience in farming while living with my grandfather. When he was abruptly laid off from work, life changed for the worst and I ended up selling tomatoes to make extra money for not only for my fees but also in support of the household.
I travelled a distance of over 12 kilometres to sell tomatoes to PTC and other shops. When I was in secondary school, in form two to be specific, I did a course in secretarial studies and started working. However due to other problems, I quit the job and started farming on a business level. I was in my late 20s at the time.
Why did you quit your job?
I had just given birth to my baby boy and realised that I was giving him a tough time because I was not able to feed him properly due to work. In many cases, I would leave for work early in the morning and come back late in the evening. For instance, even if the opportunity was there for me to breast feed my child, it became difficult because my breasts were painful due to excess work. I couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t take it anymore, hence my quitting.
How did you grow your business?
At first, it was tough because most of my money was spent buying fertiliser for the vegetables. After doing it for a while, I discovered that I was earning a lot of profit from selling vegetables alone so I worked even harder. I later joined National Association of Business Women (NABW) and got a loan of K20, 000 [about $132], part of which I used to purchase a small piece of land in Chiradzulu near the hospital. The rest was used to boost my business.
My husband and I decided to buy land because being in chitengwa marriage (we lived with my husbandÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s family), I realised that any time my in-laws might snatch the land away from me and I would be in trouble.Ã‚Â My husbandÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s relatives had a hard time in believing that their brother had fallen in love with a Malawian of Asian origin.
There was a time they made it clear that they did not want me but their brother convinced them otherwise and they later started coming around. Besides, I thought it would be nice for my husband and I to have our own place. We were living in Chiradzulu near the hospital, where we built our home.
How did you move into livestock production?
I started the livestock production after getting a loan of K80, 000 [about $526]. All along, whenever I got a loan from NABW, I made sure I bought a small piece of land. I then used the leftover for other things. At one time, I decided to venture into rearing pigs and realised a lot of profit. I built structures and started purchasing other kinds of livestock. As you are well aware, pigs multiply very fast. In a period of two years, I had over 50 pigs. I concentrated in not only multiplying but also selling them. While at NABW, we were taught how to make use of livestock dung for maximum productivity in vegetables. I adopted this with zeal and it worked out to my advantage. This is how my vegetable business got the boost. I supply my produce to so many people and I have plenty of customers.
You lost 148 pigs, worth over K1 million during the swine fever scare. How did this make you feel?
At the time, my annual income was close to K2 million [about $13 158] but this year, I buried K1.2 million [about $7 894] worth of meat within 48 hours. Now, I am getting not that much as you can see the figures. I was devastated. I was very bitter but there was nothing I could do but start all over again. The worst thing is that the pigsty was my backbone and all this vanished in a matter of days.
How did you pick up the pieces?
Right now, I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t borrow from the bank because I owe them. I have bills, including school fees to pay. But I am taking it a day at a time. I have managed to raise 40 small pigs and I know by the end of this year, things will have normalised. I feel I will have settled my bills by then. I am currently supplying vegetables to Chiradzulu Secondary School and I feel this will help me to recover.
What is the secret to your success in farming?
I do integrated farming, which means we put everything we produce to good use in all the areas we are involved in. For example, leftovers from my house are taken to the fish pond and to the kraals and from the kraals the manure goes to the garden. Some remains from the garden are taken back to the kraals while we sell and eat the rest. This secret not only saves me from buying fertiliser, but it also ensures bumper harvest.
You are the ambassador of African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). How were you chosen?
It was by the Grace of God I was chosen as the ambassador. I have been a member for NABW for some time and after seeing my work and how I was able to help many households with my kind of farming, they recommended me.
After some time, a group of people visited me and inspected my farm. I guess they were satisfied with what they saw and they appointed me. Despite my low level in education, the people from NABW thought I was doing a good job, one which needed recognition.
To acquaint me with the work they wanted me to do, they further trained me in business management skills just to mention a few. I was also trained in capacity building to impart knowledge to my fellow farmers.Ã‚Â As ambassador for AGOA, I teach farmers business management skills as well how to make products from the produce that surrounds us. I am currently training 20 women in livestock production among other things.
What are some of the challenges that women face when doing business?
The common challenge is lack of self esteem, the fact that many women look down on themselves makes it difficult for them to progress in life. I have worked hand-in-hand with my husband; I think thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s what all women should do, rather than let the husband do all the work. I am saying this because when the husband is the breadwinner and he dies, women have problems picking up the pieces.
What role has your husband played in your life?
He has been very supportive right from the beginning. When I met him, I already had two children from my previous marriage and he managed to take both my two children and I, into his humble home. When I quit my job, he was again on my side and helping me in my vegetable business.
While living with him at his home, his relatives on several occasions protested but he managed to convince them that I was the one he loved. He has been, to say the least, my shoulder to cry on. There were times he would come from work very tired only to find me still in the field working, sometimes looking very dirty and he never complained. He understood the situation and would sometimes help me.
When our business started growing, he took a bold step and quit his job, just so we could help each other as work in the field and home became overwhelming. In short, he is the reason I have managed to achieve this much.
How many children do you have?
When I met Mr. Sitima I already had two children from my previous marriage, and I have two more children with him. Picking up the pieces of my previous marriage was very hard but with GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s grace, we managed to sail through.
What do you want your children to learn from you?
It pains me that no member of my family has ever gone to college and my only wish is to educate my children so that they can go to university. I want them to know that education is the only way out of poverty and that they need to work hard for it. I would have loved to continue with my education and I wish better for my children.
Are you happy with what you have achieved?
If you had asked me before the deadly disease, I would have said yes; I am over the moon with what I am doing. But, after our loss, my husband and I are slowly getting there, and I believe we will fulfil our heartÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s desires in the near future.