Grace Mhango: Striking gold with agribusiness

Grace Mhango took a risk by diverting from her trained secretarial career and venturing into agribusiness. If her story is anything to go by, her choice is paying off well—a mother of three, board member of several organisations, founder of Women in Agribusiness in the Sub-Saharan Africa Alliance (Wassa) and much more. This hardworking woman takes Mwereti Kanjo through the journey of her life.

When and where were you born?

I was born in Lilongwe in November 1964.

How far did you go with your education?

I did post secondary education and obtained a diploma in secretarial studies.  I also hold a Pitman accounting and bookkeeping advanced certificate and an IT certificate from Ronald Brown Institute.

Can you trace the steps of your career?

I started working as a secretary with Munic Reinsurance for half a year in 1988.  I then moved on to Grain and Milling Co. as an accounts assistant for one and a half years.  In 1990, I started my own knitting and tailoring business then progressed to buying and selling of second hand cars. A few years later, I became an Illovo Sugar distributor. Since the new millennium, I have ventured into agribusiness; trading in maize, beans, fertiliser and rice to government, NGOs, donors, the general public. I also export some commodities to countries around Comesa and the Sadc Region.  I am also an approved seed distributor for Monsanto and SEEDCO.  My registered businesses include GWC Investment, Wamwai Tours and Lodges, Trade for Africa and Pamodzi Investments.

To support professional standards, I joined Grain Traders and Processors Association and I have been the president of the association for the past four years until July this year when I became its vice-president. Furthermore, I am one of the design team members for Actesa (Alliance for Commodity Trade in the East and Southern Africa) which is a Comesa wing. I am also the board member of Malawi Seed Production Programme (MASPP).

Did you ever imagine that you would end up in the farming business?

I joined the farming industry in 1998 but was only involved in tobacco farming which I stopped in 2006 and continued farming in legumes. I could see myself connected to farming life through my parents who take farming as a hobby and my uncles who were large scale tobacco farmers. Furthermore, through my fertiliser business,  I appreciated farming and was determined to work hard in this area. With my trading experience, I was determined to make farming a meaningful business venture.

Why farming?

The simple answer is what the late Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda always said ‘Chuma chili m’nthaka’.  I have come to realise that with the consumption levels of food in Malawi and Africa as a whole, one cannot go wrong if you invest in farming and indeed soil is our gold mine as we have very rich soils in Malawi.  The other given factor is Malawians were born farmers and farming is a culture and you can’t do away with culture, so farming is in me and in all Malawian blood.

We don’t need to invest much in getting any person to go into agribusiness, we only need to advise on the best crops and practices.  One thing that I am working on is to change the culture mentality into business and take this farming as a business and try to talk more about agribusiness as opposed to agriculture.  Farming is the back bone of our economy , which means it is the only quick solution to our wealth creation or financial independence.

How many farms do you own and what do you grow?

I have several farms; one is in Chilipa, another in Ntchisi , two in Zalewa and one in Mchinji and as a family we have idle farms in Chilipa, Salima, Mwanza, Zalewa, Nneno and Mchinji, which can easily add up to more than 2 000 hectares of idle farm land. I grow maize, groundnuts, pigeon peas and soya for my own consumption.

Being a woman in a position like yours, do you ever get undermined by men?

No, because I do not give them the chance to undermine me; I demand their respect in whatever I do.

How are female farmers contributing to the agricultural industry?

Women contribute about  80% to the industry through labour at the fields  and at production level but they have less than 5% market share, meaning they are not getting good value for their commodities because they are only present at production and absent in the trading and processing business.

What kind of crops are most women growing? Is there a particular reason?

The main crops being grown by women are maize, soya, red beans , sugar beans and pigeon peas simply for their own consumption and they trade some of this food if there is an urgent need such as school fees, hospital bills or any necessity at the house. They rarely trade surplus. They normally do not get any profits because they sell out of desperation.

How do you assess farming in the country?

As a country, we are in the right direction. There is political will and we are doing very well in production. We simply need to work extra hard to improve productivity and identification of reliable markets.  The other thing is to take farming as a business.  If I had a way to replace the word agriculture with agribusiness, this would have been the best solution and the fastest means of changing people’s mindsets.  Sometimes words have a serious influence.  Let’s promote agribusiness, we have been in the culture for too long.

What are the challenges facing women farmers in the country and what is the way forward?

The main challenges facing women farmers in the country are intimidation, culture and lack of information. Team work is the only solution for the women to move up the ladder.  If we work as a team, we will have a louder voice and share our strength, and if we can adopt this approach, there is a lot of hope.

How many women are part of your organisation?

I am involved in two women organisations; Wasaa (Women in Agribusiness in the Sub-Saharan Africa Alliance) which is a regional organisation present in 12 countries and I am a founder and regional president. Currently, we have 100 paid up members and over 6000 affiliate members in Malawi and over 500 paid up members across the region.  The other group is Awia (African Women in Agriculture). This has 12 founder members across Africa as a region and will have 15 members per country.  I am in the process of recruiting the local members.

What are the specific roles of your positions?

My specific roles in these organisations are, starting with Wasaa, to lead women who are interested in taking farming as a business through mobilising them and sharing information, training them, encouraging them through my personal experience, advocating on their behalf for policies which will be conducive to them, identifying other opportunities on their behalf and linking them to markets.

Awia is being Championed by madam Graca Machel and I happen to be one of the lucky few to be picked to lead the Malawi and Comesa country chapters. My role is to set up the Malawi Chapter and the chapters in Comesa countries.

Thereafter, we will be tasked to identify challenges and gaps women face in agriculture and find solutions for them. The other role is to make a checklist on women programmes and funding in the region and do some venting to make sure that funds which are targeting women in agriculture are being used by the women.

A woman’s name should not just be used to get money from the donor or governments coffers.

The last one is to make sure that women are taking part in decision-making on all issues affecting them within the agriculture sector. Our slogan for Awia is “nothing about us without us”. Madam Graca Machel will be using the Awia members to amplify voices of the women in agriculture.

There have been comments that women leadership is full of the ‘bring her down’ syndrome; what would you say about this?

The issue of women leadership bringing other women down will not apply to us because our approach is not servant-boss approach, ours is based on ownership.

The Wasaa or Awia members  own the organisations and even if anyone tries to pull me down, I will still remain a co-owner and will still be able to promote my interest.

Further to that, it takes a weaker person to be pulled down. I am a strong character and cannot be pulled down easily, so I don’t fear competition. Most of the times, this issue of pulling each other down is a result of competition. The best approach is to identify whom you are competing with, whoever is planning your down fall and make sure you improve in that area. In so doing no one will manage to pull you down.

How would you define Grace Mhango?

Grace is a business woman who believes that giving is the best way of receiving. She is principled, hard working, tough and result oriented. She is a person who is not easily intimidated by either men or women….

Are you married?

The answer to that is I am not too sure but I have three children,  two girls and one boy, namely Walusungu (18yrs), Mwawi (7yrs) and Mphatso (4yrs). If you ask me whether there is hope to get married, I will simply tell you that it’s complicated.

What do you do in your free time?

I spend my free time playing with my children and take them out for a meal or social activities like family day, fair and the like.  Sometimes I visit my parents. But I must confess I do not have much free time.  I travel a lot.

Which church do you go to?

I go to Seventh Day Adventist Church in Lilongwe commonly known as Central Church.

What or who inspires you?

I was inspired by agribusiness events and central region tobacco farmers who would go from rags to riches in those good old days.

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