Piles of green farm produce at Jenda Trading Centre in Mzimba present a picture of abundance. But behind the tomatoes and potatoes on sale are cries of dreams and hopes gone bust. JOHN CHIRWA sets the scene for a series on the future of Jenda as a rural growth centre by painting a picture of life at the trading centre.
Bustling baskets of tomatoes and pails of potatoes. Bunches of onions and heaps of cabbage heads. Tins of beans and peas. For busloads of people travelling between Kasungu and Mzuzu, Jenda Trading Centre in Mzimba is a hive of activity that will never go to sleep because it is bountifully endowed with farm produce.
The sight that welcomes you to the doorstep of the Northern Region day and night perfectly confirms that Jenda is not a marketplace like any other. Those that consider themselves well-travelled liken it to Zalewa in Neno, Lizulu and Tsangano in Ntcheu as well as Bembeke in Dedza—for they all know no season when it comes to churning out the fresh farm specialties that men, women, girls and boys always hoist in traveller’s faces on the roads.
This is the face of Jenda, which government declared a rural growth centre in 2009 to be a catalyst for rural development. Other areas benefitting from the Rural Grow Centre (RGC) initiative include Monkey Bay in Mangochi, Malomo in Ntchisi and Chitekesa in Phalombe.
The idea is that Jenda and other areas under RGC will have improved infrastructure in the form of roads and communication amenities, energy supply, agro-processing and manufacturing. Other components of RGC are business growth driven by community savings and investments, skills development and viable markets for local produce.
Jenda—not only a boundary splitting the North and Central regions, but also Malawi and Zambia—is too big to be fully understood from the window-panes of fleeting cars that stop for seconds, minutes and hours at the trading spot being developed into a rural growth centre.
“It’s our workplace and marketplace, a gold mine that feeds more pockets and stomachs in the entire Northern Region and beyond than we will ever get to understand,” said Francisco Vilikunthazi Phiri, who heads a grouping of vendors at the trading centre.
Following his eyes beyond the car windows where visitors peep with cash or ridicule for the harvest on sale, an observant eye stumbles into the toils, tears, hard work and unfulfilled dreams that farmers and traders continue to endure at a time Malawi is vying for value addition as a way of transforming the country from a predominantly subsistent and importing country to an exporting economy.
Even the dreamed transformation, articulated by the late president Bingu wa Mutharika during his inauguration in 2005, 10 years after the country passed a law requiring it to morph into an export production zone, is Greek to a typical Jenda resident.
Having spent two days in the hustle and bustle that characterises life at the trading centre, is was unmistakable that the dawn of the new millennium 14 years ago did not end the plight of farmers and traders who endure the sight of their perishable produce being wasted because even the swarm of both visiting and resident buyers that crowd the market centre cannot buy it all before its sale-by date.
The spectacle can be deadening in September, October and November. In October, tomatoes are plenty and a basket that now costs up to K7 000 goes for as low as K2 000. The growers said sometimes they throw up to 300 baskets of tomatoes into rubbish pits on a bad day.
High costs, low prices
Thursday is a market day at the roadside trading centre located south of Mzimba. When the day dawns, Moses Mkhalabweka Zimba, 50, wakes up with unrelenting hopes of reaping and profiting from the tomatoes, onions, maize and potatoes he sowed with sweat.
Before sunrise matures into sweltering heat, the father of six transports his produce from his garden in Chipata area, a farmland about 10 kilometres away from the trading centre, where almost all the crops originate. There are no vehicles coming from the area. The only reliable mode of transport is an ox-cart which costs K6 300 in transport per trip.
Those who cannot afford the charge have to carry the load on their heads. But locals still have to transport their produce to Jenda, even those with fields in Kamatowo, Kaluwe, Champhira and Luviri, almost the same distance between Chipata and the trading centre.
Lucky are those with farms around the centre, said Zimba.
“Middlemen don’t always follow us to our dimbas (gardens). We usually find our own way of transporting the produce to the trading centre where competition is high and prices are low because the produce comes in abundance,” explained Zimba.
Even elementary economics confirms that prices are destined to fall when farmers and traders supply more goods than demanded by buyers. But who are the real losers and winners in the interplay of demand and supply at Jenda?
“The locals, especially farmers, are forced to sell their produce at a giveaway prices,” complained Zimba.
He said the gains from their produce barely meet the distance, toils and costs they suffer to bring tomato to the central market area.
The low prices that impoverish the farmers benefit middlemen and visiting traders who resell the produce they buy for a song at exorbitant prices. A bucket of tomatoes that costs Mzuzu-based vendor Rose Chirwa between K5 000 and K7 000 at Jenda earns up to K10 000 when sold in heaps at Vigwagwa Market in Mzuzu. This translates into an average profit of nearly K3 000 even when transport and other costs the traders incur to get to the selling points are factored into the equation.
On Thursdays, traders buy a 40-litre basin of tomatoes at K2 000 and resell it to vendors travelling from Mzimba, Mzuzu, Kasungu and Lilongwe at prices ranging from K5 000 to K7 000.
“We don’t make profits from our produce. Farm inputs such as fertiliser, seeds, pesticides and labour are very expensive, and yet our prices are low. This makes it difficult for us to support our families,” lamented Zimba.
But come another Thursday, Zimba repeats the same thankless routine. He wakes up at dawn, hopes for a better day, transports his commodities to Jenda, donates the big chunk of the profits of his toils to middlemen and richer townspeople and finally returns home at night with little for his poor household, wife and six children.
“That’s my employment. I didn’t go beyond Form Four. There is nothing I can do with my MSCE certificate. That’s why I depend solely on tomato farming.
“The soils here are also favourable for cultivation of tomatoes, onions and potatoes. We cultivate these as cash crops and sometimes for consumption,” he said.
While Zimba regrets not taking education seriously when he was young, the trading centre is littered with children who are supposed to be in class on Thursday mornings. They wander aimlessly, some helping their parents offloading the commodities, others admiring the sights the busy day brings.
On the sunny morning in February, the market shade used for tomato grading was dotted with school-going children, helping their parents sort out tomatoes, selling plastic bags, measuring potato chips for hungry souls, standing in for shopkeepers in hawkers and marvelling at video show rooms.
They do almost everything.
“Thursdays are popular days for us. We are usually absent from school to sell small things for money we often use during break time at school,” said Daniel Ngwira, 14, a pupil at Kamarambo Primary School.
The Zambian connection
Jenda is not all about Malawians. Its bordering position with Zambia breeds a fertile ground for cross-border trade.
Sam Nyambose is from Lundazi in Zambia. He said he sells kitchen-ware at the trading centre every Thursday. He travels from Lundazi at least a day before the market day and returns home on Friday.
Nights reveal another side of life at Jenda. The gravel Jenda-Edingeni Road leading to Edingeni transports Zambians to the hub of Jenda’s night entertainment where an influx of sex workers baying for migrant traders is a common sight.
Afternoons are misleadingly innocent as if Jenda is all about tomato business. As ‘early’ as 8pm at one drinking joint, the dance floor is already jammed to capacity with some patrons ‘high’ on drinks they know best.
A bartender at the drinking joint, Sinya Jere, said they usually stock extra drinks because during such days of the week, they expect double of their usual customers.
“These are days we make double profits. Traders from Kasungu, Mzimba, Zambia and the surrounding areas lodge around here on Wednesdays waiting for the next day. They usually spend their nights in our pubs,” said Jere.
A girl who concealed her identity said she takes advantage of the thriving night business to make a living out of sex work.
“I have two homes, one at Mzimba Boma and the other is here. I spend Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at Jenda and the other days in Mzimba,” she said.
For her, owning two homes is not costly, but a smart business decision.
Business at night is as thriving as is on Thursday afternoon. The only difference is that those who sell produce on Thursday afternoon become buyers of liquor, non-alcoholic drinks and sex at night.
But while these nights might offer the best opportunity for farmers, traders and middlemen to drench their sorrows of the day, the toils, tears and unfulfilled promises remain. They are not wiped out by the strength of the drinks.
They always haunt the likes of Zimba every morning they wake up to repeat their thankless routine at a spot that holds the hopes of many as a rural growth centre.