Dairy farmers in Malawi often walk long distances to feed and hydrate cattle, but often sell milk cheaply due to lack of cooling options.
Salima Milk Bulking Group has turned to the State-run Agriculture Commercialisation (Agcom) to close the gaps.
Last year, the group of 45 men and 35 women contributed K2.7 million to receive a K6.3 million grant from the agricultural transformation project for buying cows and a cooling tank for fresh milk.
This was the first installment of a K151 million matching grant which requires them to contribute K43.3 million in three phases to affirm their commitment.
“We submitted a proposal requesting for the grant because we want over 80 cows to double our milk production from about 5 000 litres a month. With the cooling system, we will be able to meet the quantities and quality our main buyer wants,” says Flora Chirwa, one of the founders of the group registered as a cooperative in 2019.
The woman, who has been selling milk since 2002 when the group started, considers agriculture as a serious business, “so we cannot continue doing business as usual.”
However, she has nothing much to show for the ‘white gold’ she sells door-to-door for “little or no gain”.
“We don’t make much profit because everyone sells on their own. Some don’t pay and others dictate discounts that leave us poorer. Still, we have to sell the milk before it perishes,” she explains.
Agcom will support the group to expand its herd from 70 to 160 cows.
Two companies have sealed a deal to buy their milk at K195 per litre.
“Agcom will help us overcome uncertainties that impinge milk production and distribution. With the big off-taker, it was not only easy to qualify for the matching grant from the national project funded by the World Bank,” says cooperative secretary Abel Mchenga.
He envisions the support lifting cooperative members from poverty as they acquire more cows, cooling facilities and better markets. Agcom also trained them to do business profitably.
Agcom national coordinator Ted Nakhumwa encourages farmers to form cooperatives to benefit from the financing project conceived to turn agriculture from a hand-to-mouth activity to serious business.
“When farmers unite, it is easy to bargain for financial support and better prices than doing it alone. To qualify, the group is required to pay 30 percent of the amount they need to boost their enterprise. This can be paid in three installments to make it easy for everyone,” he says.
The project plans to support 300 cooperatives, but only 26 have received funding.
Salima milk bulking group meets once a month to discuss shared business opportunities, challenges and solutions.
Their herd grew by almost a third with the first cheque from Agcom.
“The cheque gave us enthusiasm to pay our 30 percent contribution to meet our needs,” Mchenga explains.
They raised their first contribution within 90 days through subscription fees, shares and annual contributions.
They have since bought cross-breeds calves with traits of Holstein and Jersey cows, which produce more milk than the local zebu.
“The cross-breed will boost milk production and disease resistance,” he says.
Meanwhile, the farmers are stockpiling hay derived from maize stalks and other crop residues in readiness for the dry season.
However, they use handheld tools to make hay. Machines would make the job easier and faster, but they cannot afford a haymaker as their sales remain low.
For them, milk business is a race against time.
“I wake up around 5am and make sure the milk is sold before people take morning tea. We have to sell fast or throw it to the dogs,” Mervis Makwere explains.
For a start, MDI Limited has committed to buy some 10 000 litres per month.
“With this boost, we require more cows and the solar-powered cooling tank to deliver milk that meets the required quantities and quality,” Mchenga says.
The cooperative also intends to start producing yoghurt, milkshakes and other value-added products to fetch more money.
The cows also produce manure to enrich barren crop fields where maize, cotton, groundnuts and cassava yields keep falling.
And some farmers are already counting the gains.
“Since I joined the group, my seven children eat three times a day. I have built a self-contained house and sent five children to school,” says Alice Kalimbuka, from Simenyiwa Village, who upgraded from poultry to livestock in 2008
Her children include a Form Four student, a mechanic, two electricians and a student at Lilongwe Technical College.
Kalimbuka gets 15 to 20 litres from her cow daily.
“Every morning, I hit the road running to sell the milk so they don’t starve. There is no sweet without sweat,” she states.
Kalimbuka says the contributory support powers her group to work harder.
“Handouts paralyse hardworking people, making them destroyers. If you contribute your hard-earned money to a business idea, you work hard and take care of communal facilities to benefit more,” she says.
Her group has employed a business manager to turn the dairy business into a profit-making empire.
Mapeto Josamu, 20, who quit school in Standard Five following the death of his parents, is one of 26 youthful farmers in the group.
He says the enterprise has the potential to lessen massive unemployment faced by a quarter of Malawians aged 18 to 35.
“I was attracted by a colleague who was always busy making money while I was being reduced to a beggar,” says the young man, who takes care of 13 cows together with his grandparents.
Butcher Chifundo Boston, 33, ventured in dairy business to diversify his income sources.
“When the business terrain becomes slippery, it is not wise to put your eggs in one basket,” he says.