Superstores’ shelves in Malawi are sagging under the weight of imported farm produce as the local harvest is widely perceived as low and unattractive.
However, 45 girls at war with youth unemployment and risky sexual behaviour in Mzuzu are confronting the agricultural economy’s appetite for foreign goods.
“It hurts us that supermarkets import food crops from South Africa and Zimbabwe, yet we have favourable conditions and soils.
“We are exporting jobs while many young Malawians remain jobless and farmers work just a few months a year,” says Thokozani Mweneungu, project coordinator of Girls Empowerment Society (GES).
She grew up escorting her mother to a rain-fed crop field just outside Kamuzu Barracks in the capital, Lilongwe. After classes, she used to carry a basketful of maize cobs, pumpkins and watermelons for sale in Kawale and Chilinde townships.
“I learnt at a young age that farming is serious business the youth cannot continue to ignore even though imports dominate lucrative markets since we don’t know how to produce high-value crops,” Mweneungu says.
Her group, with funding from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), has pitched greenhouses at Geisha.
The UN labour organisation also trained them and agricultural extension workers in how to grow tomatoes, onions, green pepper, carrots, zucchini and other high-value crops likely to substitute the imports. The new knowledge includes pest and disease control.
ILO programme coordinator Patrick Makondesa put the training in perspective: “On invitation from the Ministry of Trade and Industry, we conducted a study to establish why Malawi still imports vegetables and why supermarkets prefer imports to local produce. We found out that local farmers did not have the necessary skills to produce the quantities and quality required by the chain stores and hotel.
“So, we want to equip the girls to reap the benefits of the market dominated by imports. It’s a pity that if a chain store engages Malawian suppliers today, they disappear within a week or two because they are unable to meet the demand and standards.”
The Skills for Trade and Economic Diversification (Sted) study recommends greater investment in training farmers to embrace agriculture as a business and linking them with markets.
Information is power
Recently, Bvumbwe Agricultural Research Station in Thyolo worked with women in Chimkwende Village to develop guidebooks for both farmers and trainers.
Thanks to constant follow-ups by extension workers, the rural farmers are yielding more, and they no longer sell their vegetables cheap at Bvumbwe Market. Instead, they have partnered Roseberry Farm, which packages their produce and sells to Shoprite stores in Blantyre and Mzuzu.
“It’s pleasing that their earnings have quadrupled from K30 000 a month to K120 000 each. By linking them to Roseberry Farm, the women are making huge profits and using the proceeds to build better houses, acquire dairy cattle and send children to school,” says Makondesa.
ILO expects the out-of-school girls in Mzuzu to replicate the success story and become self-reliant as most of them are vulnerable to risky sexual activities and unlikely to go into the normal Tevet system.
“ILO promotes decent work. To see them idle is not decent. We want to give them something to do. In this way, we can substitute imports with local produce and create jobs for the youth,” Makondesa explains.
Donald Kachigamba, insect pest control specialist at Bvumbwe co-authored the handbooks, Information is Power.
“The most important thing is interest. During training, the farmers from Chimkwende were so eager that they could take the handbook to the field for reference. Sadly, most farmers in the country do not have the necessary information. Therefore, they work very hard, but they remain poor,” he says.
Interestingly, Mweneungu knows “horticulture pays” and the youth cannot leave it entirely to a generation too old to lift a hoe.
“We are young, energetic and ambitious. We have suitable conditions, but we didn’t know how to grow crops like those we see in chain stores. Now we know,” she says, sowing tomato seed in the glasshouse.
The group, founded in 2014 by youth activist Andrew Longwe to empower girls at risk of HIV infection, child marriages and teen pregnancy, largely comprises unemployed girls.
“Pangs of youth unemployment ostensibly strengthens our zeal to employ ourselves not in air-conditioned offices, but in the heat and dirt of the greenhouse.
Vanessa Nyirenda, 24, has been jobless since she obtained a diploma in journalism in 2017. To escape the monotony and dangers of idling, she volunteers at GES.
She says: “I never thought I’d become a farmer. In my dreams, I always told myself: ‘Get some education and get a job’. However, the reality is different.
“GES is giving me skills to grow crops for profit. From proceeds of farming, I want to start selling cosmetics and become self-sufficient. The girls are my market.”
Mweneungu hopes farming will help reduce risky sexual transaction, unemployment and HIV infection as the girls get busy tending to crops.
She says: “I have certificates in community development and business administration. I tried to get a job, but I ended up a lifetime intern with no serious job offers. Thankfully, Longwe taught us not wait for jobs to come our way, but to work hard to create employment for ourselves and our peers. “It is terrible that everywhere we go we meet girls with babies. Most girls become mothers before their 18th birthday. In every 10 teen girls I meet, only one had no baby on her back. Some end up in risky sexual affairs because they are helpless. It’s time to get dirty doing clean business.”