Group Village Head (GVH) Chonde of Mulanje could not contain her joy when former Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade, Shadreck Jonas, launched Mendulo Bee Keeping project three years ago.
She beamed with inexplicable ecstasy as Jonas cut the ribbon, mandating the One Village One Product (Ovop) factory to commence production.
The cooperative invested in bee keeping as an income generating activity and as a way of conserving the environment.
Chonde envisioned how the initiative would overturn the misfortunes of her poor subjects by simply adding value to locally available resources, processing, packaging design and exportation.
In the process, the project would create jobs for both the experienced and inexperienced youths from far and wide who would then contribute to the social and economic development of the country.
But that is not the case three years down the line.
The building that was supposed to house the machinery is desolate with no one to care for it.
And the chief has no idea if the monumental factory will resume its activities anytime soon.
Even from afar, one can easily see a leader who is grappling to come to terms with the flop of the factory, located about two kilometres away from Chonde Trading Centre.
“I never expected this to happen. This project came with pomp, and, I can’t believe it’s being forgotten so fast as if it never existed at all,” said Chonde.
Malawi launched the Ovop concept—invented by former governor of Oita Prefecture in Japan, Dr. Morihiko Hiramatsu, as a tool for eradicating poverty—in November 2003 to mobilise local human, material, and cultural resources to create value-added products and services for domestic and external markets.
Hiramatsu encouraged residents in villages and towns to select a possible product or industry distinctive to their village or town and foster it to be a nationally, or even globally, marketable one.
The concept is centred around three principles of creation of globally acceptable products and services based on local resources, self-reliance and creativity, and human resource development.
Thus, local residents are expected to create globally marketable products and services which embody people’s pride in material and cultural richness of their home villages and towns.
Malawi was highly inspired by the initiative with former ambassador to Japan, Dr John Chikago, copying the idea for local use.
There were a series of visits to Oita by various Malawi Government officials and some reciprocal visits to Malawi by various Ovop delegations from Japan with the support of Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) before the project was rolled out.
The interactions generated a lot of expectations in Malawi.
“I worked hard to convince Hiramatsu and former President Bakili Muluzi… my intention was to revolutionalise industries such as wood furniture, bottling of spring water from rivers such as Lichenya, promotion of traditional dance troupes and assisting musicians to market their music outside Malawi,” said Chikago.
However, 10 years after the launch, Malawi cannot export goods or services from the project.
At the heart of it all seems to be poor marketing skills among most cooperatives, lack of certification of products by the Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS) and poor road networks.
As a 2009 World Development Report argues, connectivity is key to rural development. The report cites Thailand’s One Tambon One Product (Otop) whose success is attributed to the country’s highly developed road networks and the availability of pick-up trucks for villagers.
The Japanese Ovop project, too, also benefited from the development of highway networks and motorisation. This emphasises the need for the improvement and expansion of transportation networks to achieve nationwide service delivery.
Information and communication technology (ICT) also serve as a crucial tool for identifying external markets for local products.
However, Weekend Nation has established that very few members of the Ovop cooperatives own phones, not to talk about internet access.
This, coupled with cooperatives’ poor quality products and services, and a poor road network, shatters Malawi’s hopes of ever taking advantage of internet-mediated marketing.
Ovop national coordinator, Kamia Kaluma-Sulumba, admitted that the challenges have adversely affected the project.
But she expressed optimism that the project could have achieved some mileage had it been that MBS had certified Ovop products and services.
“Product quality certification [by MBS] could have contributed a lot to sales enhancement and promotion of goods and services from Ovop-supported cooperatives,” she explained.
However, the certification process appears complex and costly for most cooperatives as alluded to by Maggie Maseko, production supervisor of Biriwiri Farmers and Marketing Cooperative in Ntcheu.
The cooperative was formed in 2005 to facilitate acquisition of loans for Irish potato farmers and production of crisps.
“Since 2008, we have been producing high quality crisps. But we can’t sell outside the district because of certification restrictions,” said Maseko.
But MBS’ certification officer, Gift Chikavumba, said local producers can still sell their products across the borders without an export certificate as long as consumers demand it.
He, however, emphasised that an export certificate is fundamental in ensuring that agricultural exports meet minimum quality requirements for Malawi and importing countries.
“MBS issues an export certificate after conducting rigorous inspections and tests. This is to ensure that there is compliance of producers to quality requirements with the aim of protecting consumers from unfair trade practices in quality, quantity, presentation and labelling, based on certification practices that are recognised at international level,” said Chikavumba.
Chikago, who brought the concept to the country with Chakalipa Kanyenda—then Director of Extension Services in the Ministry of Finance—said it was a shame that Malawi has failed to utilise the initiative to grow the ailing economy.
“Our dream was to see the initiative facilitating an end to the importation of goods that can be produced locally such as tomato sauce, fruit juices, porcelain ware, cotton wool, furniture and diversification of uses for maize as staple food.
“We thought that by now, Ovop products from every district in Malawi should have been competing on quality standards with some emerging as most suitable for exportation. But now, even the people who are working at Ovop offices have no vision for the programme. All they are doing is earning a living from Ovop,” he observed.
The former envoy noted that Ovop could have also saved the country from the problems of erratic supply of foreign exchange (forex) by limiting imports to only goods and services which Malawi cannot produce.
He challenged government to go to the drawing board and bang heads on what went wrong with the project.
Chikago said he is ready to offer assistance towards revitalising the concept.
“I am ready to help in order to make Ovop fulfil its intended objectives,” he said.