Soya bean is set to become the next big thing in Malawi’s agriculture if well harnessed.
It spins innumerable benefits both as a food and commercial crop.
As a key ingredient in the manufacturing of edible oils, livestock feed and foods in the hospitality industry, soya is firmly asserting its market as a big export.
When mixed with maize and other ingredients, soya porridge is a nutritious food supplement in the home and healthcare sector. It helps the young, old and sick restore energy and health.
Commercial production has become the new niche for local growers diversifying from traditional, low-earning crops.
Yet Malawi is not reaping the full benefits due to inappropriate farming practices that result in low yields or low quality beans.
The setbacks include the use of low quality seeds, land shortage, unpredictable rain patterns due to climate change and low adoption of recommended agricultural practices.
As a result, supply often does not meet local and international demand. Just last farming season, production fell by 0.004 percentage points to 264 372 kilogrammes (kg). It could slide further this year due to uneven rain patterns and devastating cyclones.
While soya yield globally is 4 000kg per hectare, studies show an average Malawian farmer harvests a mere 800 kg.
Another challenge is the lack of value addition.
Farmers do not have the appropriate technologies to protect their beans as compared to other cash crop chains such as tobacco and tea.
This affects pricing for local soya and opens a whole pricing conundrum for processed products that do not come cheap.
While most edible oil and feed manufacturers require soya for their factories, local farmers cannot store their harvest for a long time and opt for export markets in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Turkey and India.
As most local soya goes offshore for value addition, local manufacturers are forced to import the vital ingredient. This exposes them to high import costs eventually passed to the consumer.
Today, the price of cooking oil, an average of K3 399.80 per litre or K17 000 per five-litre bottle, has risen beyond the reach of many Malawians. This has triggered a public outcry and an emotive debate.
This should not have been the case as the main ingredient, soya, is grown locally.
This year, the price for Malawi soya bean is estimated at $ 0.45 and $ 0.49 per kg, yet the landing cost for imported soya in 2019 was $1.41 per kg.
Internationally, this disparity could be prolonged by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as it affects general terms of commodity trade.
Locally, it may be affected by disruptive cyclones and delayed rains which have likely reduced yields and bean quality. In some areas, delays in rainfall will prolong the harvest cycle.
This cocktail of issues will contribute to high prices of soya products, including cooking oil and other condiments.
Luckily, there are efforts to improve the legumes value chain, including price, warehousing and seed quality.
It is praiseworthy that agriculture development organisations are making strides to improve seed quality and substitution, agronomy and field technician services, processing and utilisation of raw soya as well as building the capacity of grower networks and increasing access to structured markets.
There are about 50 000 smallholder soya farmers in Malawi. Getting them structured and organised through cooperatives will be critical in attracting linkages to research and grower financing.
Apart from soya, a three-year project by Standard Bank plc and UN Women in the Central Region facilitated the value addition chain for groundnuts, another key ingredient in edible oil manufacturing. This partnership resulted in improved production and increased income for vulnerable women.
With a market value of $30 million, which is estimated to double, there is no doubt that.
Malawi’s soya bean industry is the next frontier in agriculture.
Given such potential, it will be critical to organise growers into proper structures to help them improve credit score and attract R&D partners.
As the soya bean industry grows, so will the need for better regulation to guide market structure, pricing, protect farmers interests and those of end users of processed products.