Cassava is rising to the top of Malawi’s food chain. The unlikely tale may bizarrely be attributed to border lockdowns triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The restricted movement of both people and goods left Malawi with a shortage of industrial raw materials, including wheat flour used as a thickener in the food manufacturing industries.
“In Malawi, the food industry has for decades relied on corn starch from South Africa and Zimbabwe as a key raw material and stabiliser in most products, including our tomato sauce, because it is not available locally,” says Joseph Pfumbwa, managing director of JoeClean Investments, which produces RadRoy tomato sauce, vinegar and soups.
Pfumbwa says during last year’s nationwide lockdown in South Africa, it became increasingly difficult and expensive to import corn starch.
Eventually, it could not be sourced abroad anymore.
“The lack of raw materials for our products forced us to do more research. In the process, we found out that in many countries with advanced food industries, companies like ours use certified high-quality cassava flour (HQCF) as a food stabiliser as well as a substitute to wheat flour,” he says.
The company immediately invested in studies exploring how it could add value to local cassava to serve the growing customer base.
Based on the findings, RadRoy substituted corn starch in tomato sauce with HQCF from local cassava processors under the National Cassava Processors Association (NCPA).
The group of local cassava processors mass produce and trade high quality and certified cassava-based and energy products both locally and internationally.
Among the first HQCF suppliers to the RadRoy foods chain were Mathiya Cooperative from Mulanje, Nsanama Womens Cooperative in Machinga and individual processor Emmanuel Maloko from Zomba.
Nsanama Womens Cooperative is supported by the Kulima– More Income and Employment in Rural Areas of Malawi (Miera) programme, implemented by GIZ on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the European Union (EU).
The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Agriculture and selected stakeholders such as the Root and Tuber Crops Development Trust (RTCDT), promotes seven value chains, including cassava, to increase rural incomes and employment.
The initiative targets smallholder farmers and enterprises to beat challenges such as poor access to land, inputs, capital and markets.
According Pfumbwa, RadRoy sauce customers sampled the product and gave positive feedback to the use of locally-produced HQCF—with or without imported corn starch.
He explains: “Our consumer base attest that the RadRoy products are more stable when packaged and taste better when made with HQCF.
“Secondly, HQCF is locally available, preventing the nightmares of sourcing forex and importing corn starch. In buying from local cassava processors we are empowering our people and making their lives better.”
And it makes business sense. For every K1 200 once spent on importing corn starch, the business now saves K800.
“I have passed on that saving effect to my customers which made our product cheaper. Plus, we have increased our sales volume,” he states.
Pfumbwa reckons that HQCF is a better option as long as processors keep producing the desired quantities and quality.
His company meets part of the cost of transporting the quality cassava flour from processors in Lilongwe, Mzimba and Nkhotakota.
NCPA members are supported by the programme designed to boost value addition and market integration of smallholder farmers and enterprises.
It has improved productivity, processing of raw products or access to markets.
“There is a stable market now as other food processing companies have started coming directly to us to look for HQCF. We may have challenges in meeting the demand for cassava, especially in off harvest periods because we can only use fresh cassava to make HQCF,” says Estere Juni, chairpersonof Mathiya Cassava Cooperative.
The cassava farmers and processors presently process up to two tonnes a month for JoeClean and other Blantyre-based food manufacturers.
Their processing is largely manual and they require proper drying equipment to process in bulk during harvest season for the rest of the year.
Sphiwe Biginoti, 22, is one of 13 young people newly incorporated in the 112-member Nsanama Cooperative.
“I was impressed with what our women leaders Esitere Kamanga and Loveness Andiseni have become in the community and how they engaged young people like me into the project, especially now that the market for HQCF from our area is opening,” she says.
With such optimism and enthusiasm, the rise and rise of industrial cassava use may just be hitting a notch up.