IFAD Asset Request Portlet

Asset Publisher

Beatrice Makwenda: The future belongs to organised farmers

02 March 2016


Beatrice Makwenda, Policy and Programmes Coordinator of the National Smallholder Farmers' Association of Malawi (NASFAM):

Good afternoon. We will start off this afternoon in Glasgow, in Scotland, so imagine you are walking on the Warnock Road and you notice a Rainbow Turtle shop and you walk into the shop and immediately you are attracted to nicely displayed packets of rice. You pick your rice packet and on it, it reads: grown and harvested by smallholder farmers in Malawi. Immediately a thought races through your mind, because the world has known smallholder farmers to be really small. Their productivity levels are usually 50 per cent or below. Their access to markets is limited to selling by the roadside or to middle men who hang up scales under a tree. And then you wonder, how has Malawian rice grown by smallholder farmers find itself in Glasgow. But you see, the gene for those rice packets begins in Karonga, the far north district of Malawi. There, smallholder farmers produce rice.

In the past, one particular farmer, Keterina Nakazimba grew rice and sold it within her area. Every year, she could have raised her rice and sold it to the middle men that were nearby her area. Upon arrival at the middle man's place she would be taught the weight of her own rice and the price at which they would buy it at. She would sell off and take the money, and off she would go home. When another season is upon her she will continue to grow and produce the rice without really knowing where she is going to sell the rice, how she is going to sell the rice and at what price she is going to sell it, but year in and year out she continues to grow because for Keterina and her household, rice production is not something they do for leisure. It is their main source of livelihood and for many smallholder farmers like her, rice production is really the only means for survival.

But as with many other situations, there is always a light at the end of tunnel. In the early 2000s the National Smallholder Farmers' Association of Malawi, NASFAM, went to Kaporo in Karonga, the home of Keterina. The key message there was that smallholder farmers should mobilize themselves, organize themselves and form farmer groups, and together they should pull their harvests and sell as a group. The idea that for the first time Keterina would not singlehandedly get her produce to the middle man but that together, with motivated, like-minded smallholder farmers, they will pull their produce together and sell as a group, is what attracted Keterina the most to join the Association. Since then, the farmer association has given them leverage to have a unified voice when they are marketing their produce but you see, even with a unified voice their product must still be of good quality.

Now, to get products of good quality is what the Association works with the smallholders, getting access to information about good agricultural practices that result in better use is one area that the Association focuses on. But beyond that is ensuring that the smallholder farmers have access to good quality seed, which is fundamental in getting better yields as well as getting a better product. Today, Keterina, who lives 500 kilometres from the capital city of Lilongwe, cannot sell off her product at a price less than 44 cents per kilogramme when everyone else within the area is selling off at a price of 30 cents per kilogramme or, in many cases, even lower. Getting organized into a farmer group has given them an opportunity and generated linkages between the smallholder producers and the customers. When smallholder farmers come together and put their products together and enter into price negotiations, they are no longer price takers. They have become price setters.

Today, NASFAM, a number of middle men, vendors, wait for NASFAM to announce product prices and start buying from the farmers. Then they come and follow. What a change in the market dynamics when setting of prices takes reconnaissance of the cost of producing one kilogramme of rice. When that happens, there is more money in the farmers' pockets, and rice production starts to benefit the producers. But Keterina is much more, not just excited in getting assurance or certainty on where to sell. It is beyond that. Belonging to a farmer association she has market access. We all know that rice prices, as many other agricultural products, are subject to price fluctuations. The Farmer Association provides a cushion against these fluctuations because it is into value addition. The Farmer Association has gone into rice processing as well as packaging it into packets and made a formidable brand image.

The other day, a friend of mine called and said there is no rice in the supermarket and for a minute I thought, how can a supermarket, situated in the city centre, have no rice in stock? But when I probed her she said she really meant to say there is NASFAM Kilombero rice in the supermarket. That is the reputation of a smallholder farmer organization's brand of a carefully selected rice, very aromatic, that would make you change the menu if it is out of stock. Going beyond mere produce ?? as well as primary trading has meant that smallholder farmers understand the customer preferences and the marketing demands as well as the quality needs of the market they want. To do so has gone beyond to ensure that the smallholder farmers have good extension services but also have put in place quality management systems and, beyond that, ensuring that each and every smallholder farmer in the Association has access to good quality seed to ensure that it is of the variety that the market wants.

But these are just some of the things that the Association can do. Beyond that, there is need to have marketing infrastructure in place, storage facilities, warehousing – these are things that not just the Association provides to smallholder farmers. It is a core of actors in the value chain, financiers as well as those that look at standards, as well as policy makers to ensure that there are better policy frameworks for standards adherence as well as ensuring that smallholder agriculture is developed to that level. I am glad to borrow the words of the IFAD President, Kanayo Nwanze, who says: "Development is not something we do for others. It is something they do for themselves." This is a vivid example where smallholder farmers have come together and defined their destiny in as far as agriculture is concerned, pulling their resources together. It is time now that we work with them.

Doing a product like this and creating a brand requires certification and to certify in a country where your national standards board is not yet accredited to provide certification means that the smallholder farmer association has to go to great lengths, dig deeper into their pockets and get the products even across the board to get such certification. The costs that they cover even just to transport samples to get them down from Malawi to South Africa are enormous. But if we are creating sustainable farmer organizations, sustainable farmer institutions, we need to put our force together and see how can we move smallholder agriculture because NASFAM, the power of collective action, has shown us that even with smallholder farmers, when they are organized they can really be a formidable force. They can be a force to reckon with, not just as a brand name but because we are talking about smallholder farmers and their livelihoods. NASFAM usually says: "The future belongs to the organized." The smallholder farmers have started getting organized and they are creating their own brands and linking up directly with. This is a call for everyone to work together with them to ensure that we uplift the lives of smallholder farms and generally, where 80 per cent of the population lives in the rural areas, what we are really looking at is improving the lives of the rural poor. Family farming is possible; we have seen an example. Thank you.