Alice in a Wondrous Land—Malawi Women Farmers’ Quest for Sustainability

*AUTHOR BIO

The Earth & I asked Ms. Alice Kachere, a Malawi smallholder farmer and global women’s advocate, to inform our readers of the challenges and successes of smallholder women farmers in Malawi, who are striving to farm successfully without the security of property rights, adequate training, or advanced farming technology.


Alice’s Story

Alice Kachere   ©Author
Alice Kachere ©Author

I am a smallholder farmer from Kalumbu, Lilongwe, Malawi, with three children and three grandchildren. I grew up in a farming family. When my husband died in 2003, I began to farm on my own. But because only the husband can own land, I lost the right to farm our land when he died and I had to appeal for permission to stay on farming there.


I worked tirelessly in the fields, sweating year after year to grow and harvest the cash crops of tobacco and maize. But because I was incurring great losses in the process, I received little to no profits.


This changed in 2006 when I joined the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM). Through my association with NASFAM, I joined the bandwagon of legume and livestock farmers—dairy and legumes offer improved nutrition and market prices—which has improved my livelihood tremendously.


In 2007, I was selected as a board member of NASFAM and became a chairperson of NASFAM in 2009. In 2012, I was selected as a member of the World Farmers’ Organization’s Women’s committee, and today I am a chairperson of the Rural Women’s Assembly, Malawi chapter.


Prior to joining NASFAM, I was farming, but not as a business. It was subsistence farming, like that of many of our rural dwellers. As a single woman, I had to depend on steady family labor as well as seasonal, casual laborers to help with land preparation, weeding and harvesting. Our basic tool is a hand hoe. And I couldn’t farm just for the sake of it; I had to earn a living from it to pay school fees for my children and care for my elderly mother when she was alive.


I saw I needed a different approach to farming to offer a more meaningful benefit to my life, and NASFAM has shown me how to move into agribusiness, largely focusing on producing and marketing.


When I look back now, sometimes I don’t believe it is me who has accomplished all that I have done since striking out on my own. The growth of my business gives me the drive to keep on going. Most importantly, I have acquired skills and developed a reasonable network to push my business forward.


The Challenges of Farming in Malawi


Farming in Malawi is not easy.


I still rely on the hand hoe to farm. I don’t have appropriate farming equipment, such as tractors. Even when I do all that I can to follow good agricultural practices, farming as a business suffers from the effects of climate change and pests like armyworms. There is also a lack of a conducive business environment, limited access to financial services (interest rates are high), lack of ownership and control of land, no crop insurance, and farm gate prices (crop prices if purchased at the farm) that don’t consider the cost of production.

Malawi’s farming tools (left). Armyworm on a soybean plant (right). ©Swathi Sridharan, Wikipedia Commons. ©JCesar/Pixabay


As a rural farmer, my dream is to go into “value addition” or changing products to a more valuable state. I want to be able to both produce and process crops. I just need access to machinery and investment capital—loans that are not punitive, but serve as a catalyst to move me higher up the value chain.


Farming as a Woman in Malawi


Farming is a source of livelihood for many families in Malawi, especially in rural areas of the country. Today, women in Malawi contribute a great deal to the agricultural sector, primarily through crop and livestock farming. In fact, the contribution of women farmers exceeds 70% of Malawi’s farming sector. However, due to high illiteracy levels, rural farming initiatives are hampered by lack of knowledge on modern farming techniques and marketing skills as well as poor infrastructure and inadequate resources.

Land resources in Malawi are owned by males.   ©Swathi Sridharan/Wikimedia Commons
Land resources in Malawi are owned by males. ©Swathi Sridharan/Wikimedia Commons

In Malawi’s culture, land resources are generally owned by males, thus depriving women of adequate land and farming opportunities. Many men earn money doing “piece work” outside the agriculture sector, so they do not spend too much time on farms. This can create frustrating problems when the men are asked to make crucial decisions about their family’s farming activities.


Women farmers in Malawi further lack exposure to modern farming technologies and such things as processing and packaging. Training opportunities, such as in manure making and storage and marketing for farm produce, are minimal. Due to women farmers’ high poverty levels, they focus on short-term farming for quick realization of income and food security. But this strategy offers very little opportunity compared to pursuing agricultural investments for the long term.


Advancements for Women Farmers in Malawi


Despite the challenges, Malawi women farmers can now form cooperatives and village level groups that offer a helping hand to meet the labor requirements of different farming processes and seasonal demands. This development has afforded them soft loan opportunities through Village Savings and Loan initiatives.


Malawi has also established favorable policies with the aim of promoting agricultural activities. The existence of controls in agricultural markets has eliminated middlemen who brought unfavorable price fluctuations for farm produce.


Malawi has generally favorable climatic conditions that enable farmers to cultivate and harvest crops through rain-fed and irrigation-based farming. Most parts of Malawi have a good topography, soil suitable for small-scale farming, and adequate and suitable water reservoirs. Because of these natural advantages and financing and policy advancements, women in Malawi can now harvest food crops, ranging from cereals to vegetables, as well as cash crops like tobacco and cotton.


Like farming anywhere, high quality inputs—such as seed, fertilizer, energy, pest controls, equipment and livestock feed—into farming activities are crucial for Malawi’s women farmers to achieve better yields. In addition, proper livestock management is crucial for them to ensure livestock health and increased earnings.


Biodiversity and Farm Yield


Women farmers have put biodiversity conservation at the heart of their operations through converting land to forests and adding composite manures to enrich and conserve the soil. They have planted cereals, legumes, tubers and herbs as soil

Alice in her soybean and maize fields.   ©Author
Alice in her soybean and maize fields. ©Author

nutrients. Moreover, new “tree plantations” have helped to reduce soil degradation and improve water conservation, which assists in irrigation farming. Through all of these things, Malawi has seen a tremendous boost in yield resulting in higher produce proceeds in the markets.


Impact of COVID-19


Agriculture is the main contributor to Malawi’s Gross Domestic Product and the pandemic battered the nation’s GDP by shrinking global markets and lowering levels of agricultural exports.


Women farmers in Malawi were adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in many ways. Curfews and lockdowns closed markets for their farm produce. Restrictions on Village Savings and Loan meetings negatively affected the progress of farm-financing and knowledge-sharing at the village level. Also, most Malawian agribusinesses closed their operations, leading to scarce availability of farm inputs and exorbitant market prices.


COVID further led to high levels of unemployment in the major cities. This forced many people to relocate to rural areas, causing a scramble for farmlands.


Now, Malawi is making efforts to recover from the pandemic. COVID-19 preventive measures are being followed in the agriculture sector. Recently, women farmer cooperatives have formed with emerging agricultural governance structures to link our women farmers to the rest of the world. The social cash transfer program has boosted farming-financing, leading to more sustainable farming, more affordable farm inputs, labor costs and harvest management.


Women Farmer Cooperatives


As I mentioned, women farmers in Malawi have formed cooperatives that permit them to sell their produce in bulk quantities and obtain soft loans from Malawi’s state-owned institution, the National Economic Empowerment Fund (NEEF). The joining together of rural women farmers to sell in bulk has strengthened their bargaining power.


The introduction of modern communication media has further seen Malawi women farmers accessing international markets for produce like soya beans, pigeon peas, and sunflower. These crops are now being exported to India, China, and Zimbabwe.


The government’s 2016 introduction of the Buy Malawian Strategy campaign has bolstered the market for local farmers’ produce. When local industries are encouraged to procure raw materials locally, women farmers have greater opportunities to sell their produce m