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Learning new horticultural techniques to raise income

©IFAD/Marco Salustro

Matoe village_ Lulanga Messè harvests pigeon peas in her garden,

Lobi is one of the most remote areas in Malawi. Located west of the market town of Dedza along the Mozambican border, it takes one hour travelling on a track road to reach the area. Until very recently, farmers could not grow enough to guarantee food security, but had to rely on erratic and limited harvests of vegetables and maize which often ran out before the next crop was harvested.

When the IFAD-supported Irrigation, Rural Livelihoods and Agricultural Development Project (IRLADP) came to the Dedza district, many smallholder farmers were given the opportunity to learn new techniques and find more profitable ways to earn a living. The six-year project, co-financed by the World Bank, aims to raise agricultural productivity and net incomes of poor rural households by providing an integrated package of support covering irrigation, agricultural/irrigation advisory services, marketing and post-harvest assets and services. IRLADP has been implemented in 11 districts in the northern, central and southern regions of Malawi.

Building greenhouses

One of the associations which took part in the project, the Lobi Horticultural Association, is an exemplary organization. Initially formed in 1998 to grow mango and lemon seedlings, the organization has 1,778 members, of whom 1,226 are women. It received a grant to help build greenhouses and purchase inputs and equipment such as wheelbarrows, plastic tubes and seedlings. “We submitted a proposal to IRLADP for one greenhouse, because we felt that’s what we really needed to improve our production,” explained Alice Guburu, secretary of the association. “Since we started working with the project, we’ve increased that number to seven,” she added. The association is divided into six horticultural clubs in three zones; each club operates two greenhouses which are responsible for the nursery production. The remaining greenhouse is run directly by the association for the benefit of all.

Grafting seedlings

Association members also received training in plant grafting, which was very beneficial; the farmers are now able to sell higher-quality seedlings, which will bear more fruit, at a much higher price. “We used to sell ungrafted mango plants for MK 20 [US$0.13] each. Now we sell the grafted plant for MK 200 [US$1.32] each,” said Sapithirika, chairperson of the Kapaco Club, the most successful of the association’s clubs. “Before we had this knowledge and the structure of a greenhouse, our plants were dying or were destroyed by animals.”

The Kapaco Club, which has 45 members (42 of whom are women), accumulated almost MK 600,000 (US$3,973) in its bank account by producing and selling mango seedlings. In 2008, the club sold 1,500 ungrafted seedlings for MK 30,000 (US$198). In 2009, after learning the new grafting technique, the club earned MK 250,000 (US$1,655) from selling seedlings. So far in 2010, it has produced 1,500 grafted seedlings and has already sold 1,000 at MK 200 (US$1.32) each. Members of the club grow eggplants, tomatoes and maize for consumption and sale. As in the other clubs, each farmer’s income depends on his or her production and quality of seedlings.

Selling and marketing

The project also provided training in leadership, nursery management and marketing. Each club is responsible for production and for managing the greenhouses, and the association is responsible for marketing and sales. “We have a marketing committee which monitors the seedlings to make sure they reach the right stage of maturity for selling, and which looks for market outlets,” Sapithirika explained. Sometimes the buyers come to them, and sometimes they negotiate over the phone or even travel to the buyers’ location with a sample of the seedlings. Their major buyer is a non-governmental organization, Concern Universal.

The association doesn’t take any commission on sales, but members contribute an annual membership fee of MK 150 (US$1). The association uses the proceeds from its own greenhouse to pay for its four employees (one office clerk, one watchman and two garden boys) and fuel for transport. The rest of the money, some of which is used to buy more farming inputs, such as fertilizer and seedlings, is deposited into a bank account in Dedza, about 40 km away. “Last year we deposited MK 85,000 [US$563]. For this year, we are waiting to sell the seedlings,” said Alice.

A brighter future

Members feel that their livelihoods have improved substantially since 2008, when the project started supporting the association. “We have all benefited a lot from the project. We now have food to take us to the next season, many of us have an iron sheet roof on our house, we are sending our children to school and have been able to buy bicycles,” they said almost unanimously. Sapithirika added, “We were also able to buy household items and fertilizers. We use our money to maintain the greenhouse and have invested in a milling machine to mill maize to feed our families. We now have visitors coming regularly to see what we are doing, and we have plans to open a sale outlet in the capital Lilongwe.”
Mary, a 45-year-old mother of seven, is a member of the Lobi Horticultural Association in the Club Chikondano. She used to live with her mother, but she built her own house in 2009 after successfully selling grafted seedlings. “I grafted 370 seedlings in 2008, and in 2009 the association identified a market with Concern Universal. I was able to sell my seedlings for MK 200 [US$1.32] each, making MK 74,000 [US$490] in total. With that money I bought iron sheets for my roof, which cost me MK 45,000 [US$298]. I also paid a boy MK 1,500 [US$10] to make mud bricks for my house and paid MK 20,000 [US$132] to the bricklayer to construct my house,” she explained.

In 2009, Mary grafted 400 seedlings, which she sold to Concern Universal through the association, earning MK 80,000 (US$530). “I bought a push bike with the money and put the rest in a bank account with the New Building Society,” she said. She will use some of that money to buy farming inputs and fertilizers in preparation for the next season. Soon she’ll also buy maize for consumption, to take advantage of the current low prices, and then she’ll store it in her house. She also owns livestock.

Mary’s children, who are between the ages of 12 and 22, go to secondary school, although they are a bit behind because they started late. “I couldn’t afford to send them earlier,” she explained. Unlike primary schools, which are free in Malawi, secondary schools charge a fee. She is very proud of her eldest daughter, who has qualified as a teacher and is now working in the village. She no longer feels poor. “I’m not rich either,” she says. “I’m in-between. I never thought I would have as much money in the bank.”  Mary doesn’t intend to stop there. She is quite ambitious and would like to have her own greenhouse to grow more mango seedlings and make more money this way. “The money is so much better now that we know how to graft seedlings,” she added.

The association’s other members share Mary’s vision of the future. They want more greenhouses to grow and sell more seedlings. “Our plan is to have at least 20 greenhouses for our clubs and association,” said Alice Guburu. “We’re already running out of space. Some of our members have to store the seedlings in their own house.”