Despite being an agrarian economy, Malawi struggles so much in providing sustainable markets for her farmers.
The worst-hit farmers are those that grow perishable crops such as vegetables and legumes. Poultry farmers, who sell eggs and dairy farmers, have also not been spared.
Take Austin Kasowa, a small-scale dairy farmer living in the area of group village head Ngwangwa in Lilongwe, for example.
Lack of a stable fresh milk market has forced him to sell the product at a loss.
“I am not aware of any market where I can supply the milk at a better price, just like tobacco farmers who have a sustainable market.
“We [dairy farmers] also want the government to help us in finding a sustainable market for our produce,” says Kasowa.
The situation has led to exploitation by vendors who buy the milk at a give-away price.
Kasowa says some vendors offer farmers less than K200 for a litre of milk.
An interested investor in dairy farming Daniel Mwavuli says his research in dairy farming business has shown that there are so many challenges facing local farmers.
He cites lack of structured markets for milk in areas where the farmers live and inadequate markets with conditions favourable to small-scale farmers.
“Dairy farming in Malawi can only succeed if the government invested in structuring markets for farmers and provided support such as capacity building and funding for dairy farming cooperatives, especially in rural areas,” says Mwavuli.
Mzuzu Dairy director Denis Chitowe says his company has a readily available market for farmers in the city at K550 per litre but notes that they do not have capacity to process large volumes of milk.
He, however, assures farmers that Mzuzu Dairy is working towards improving its production capacity and prices to attract more small-scale dairy farmers.
Benjamin Chiumia, a member of Doroba Milk Bulking Group in Mzuzu, blames lack of competitive milk markets for the poor pricing.
“Our cooperative is interested in maximising milk production but the major challenge is lack of competitive markets for our produce.
“This is a limiting factor because we do not earn enough by selling to vendors who bargain for low prices. On the other hand, dairy mash prices keep rising,” he says.
Ted Harawa, a research student from the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Reources, notes that lack of access to markets for farm produce is a big problem.
He says: “The situation is even worse for rural farmers who fall prey to vendors who buy their produce at a cheaper price and later on sell it at a huge profit in urban areas.”
Malangiza Daily Cooperative at Ngwangwa Village in Lilongwe offers a glimpse to the unfair market practices troubling the milk trade.
Farmers in the area are coerced to sell milk at an average price of K220 per litre.
Community Savings and Investment Promotion (Comsip) Cooperative Union information, education and communications officer Emmanuel Muwamba says his organisation is advocating for income generation from farm produce through its Legume Enterprise and Structured Production (Lesip) Project.
Through the project, Comsip is supporting small-scale farmers on forward contracts by providing readily available markets.
Minister of Agriculture Lobin Lowe is saddened with the low incomes farmers get from their toil. He commits to narrow the trade gap that disadvantages the farmers.
He says: “In addressing market challenges for farmers, our focus is to build markets and export readiness of Malawian farmers and exporters so that we develop regional as well as global value chains.
“We are also speeding up the crafting and gazetting of industry act regulations such as in tobacco farming, among others.”
The minister’s desire is in line with Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy(Cepa) support to improve the welfare of small-scale farmers.
Among others, Cepa provides entrepreneurship training aimed at creating market structure and impart knowledge in pricing.
If successful, the dream to give farmers a fair reward for their toil will set Malawi back on the path of agricultural progress where the country once thrived with exports of cash crops buoyed by an organised State marketing system.
Meanwhile the small-scale farmer await an opportunity for their yield to count in the quest of boosting the country’s gross domestic product.