The auctioneers chant is unmistakable, even in the din of the huge tobacco auction floors, you will hear it.
Farmers murmuring, buyers calling at each other, the squeak of the barrow lining up the bales of tobacco for sale, you can still hear it.
This time though, it is a softer voiced auctioneers chant and yes, it is a female voice, a voice of an auctioneer leading tobacco buyers, markers and others. The only one ahead of her is a starter, a female as well.
Extraordinarily as AHL Tobacco Sales Limited came to be in this year, Lilongwe Auction Floors witnessed for the first-time an all-women sales team take to the floor.
On this day in September, it was Martha Chisi, the starter, calling the starting prices on each bale on auction market, auctioneers Tiwonge Msowoya and Mickness Kaunda took turns chanting the prices as marker Orlene Chunda took note of the prices of the traded bales.
On the periphery, but not far, Daisy Fatchi was engaged animatedly with farmers hearing their concerns and answering their questions. This was a first.
When I caught up with the team after sales, yes they were tired, but they were excited about a job “well-done”.
Chisi said that though the job was challenging, it was not intimidating and as a team, they work seamlessly to perfectly deliver the sale of tobacco as any other team would.
“We work with no regard to our gender and are able to handle anything and everything that comes up as we conduct the sale,” she said smiling.
“Our work is very systematic as such when issues arise, we are able to handle them, with speed and ease. We are trained to do this and do it as good as any male colleague,” adds Chisi.
They are not the only team though, and often they work with male colleagues who take on other roles as well.
Msowoya, who in 2015 became the first ever female auctioneer for AHL Tobacco Sales, echoed the sentiments saying that the challenges have not been about being female, but ensuring that they maintain the high standards of performance on the job.
“We are well trained for the roles that we take on, but every situation is unique, and we have to deal with it the best we can,” she said.
The female auctioneer has been on the floors for a long time. She started at the lower levels of the complex tobacco trading system.
“I have worked my way up as such I have the advantage of experience and knowledge which is very important to having the team when in operation to deliver,” said Msowoya, adding that: “We have a very supportive work environment such that we and our male colleagues work above the gender divide.”
For Fatchi, hers is an ever-exciting experience engaging with farmers as they come to witness tobacco sales. She is a grower’s representative, a job that entails listening to the concerns of farmers, allaying their fears and where necessary scaling up the enquiry to relevant officers.
“At times, there are growers that find it difficult to believe a young lady like me will help them sort out their problems.
“But I understand that. It is cultural, and when we sit down and sort out their problems they come out of the preconception and feel that I did more than they expected” she said.
Fatchi said her presence on the floors also helps female growers have better access to assistance when they have concerns or an inquiry.
“Because of the cultural set up in most communities, the women find it hard to seek help from males, especially in a new environment. My presence helps them. They often say that as women they find it easier to ask for information from me and get their problems resolved,” she added.
When on the floors, the all-ladies selling team creates a buzz not only for the buyers, but even growers who watch candidly.
During a recent growers’ tour which aims at taking growers through the tobacco receiving and sales processes, growers acknowledged that the processes of trading tobacco were now demystified.
“The presence of these ladies is helpful. We were only seeing men and the assumption was that tobacco trading can only be done by men.
“Now it is easier for us as well to send our wives to follow up on some of these sales, since they will be assisted by fellow women here,” remarked one grower.
Chisi, Msowoya and Fatchi also agree that their increased presence and roles on the tobacco trading floors are breaking barriers for women in the tobacco value chain.
During trading session, there are more and more women involved in the processes including those from buyer and regulatory institutions.
“Even on the stakeholders’ side we are seeing more women taking roles and jobs on the floors which gives us confidence as we are working,” said Chisi.
At AHL-TS, it is not only these three ladies who have taken up leading roles. The information centre, which is key in disseminating information to tobacco sellers about their sales and payment information, also has a woman at the helm. Mary Chilala, who is customer care manager, is yet another example of the growing power of women in the tobacco selling sector.
AHL Group public relations manager Teresa Ndanga says the company acknowledges the power of diversity in business growth. “Since women are taking up more and more challenging roles that only men used to take up gives confidence to women and they feel valued. Women on the frontline of tobacco sales have delivered just as their male counterparts,” she said.