It is a busy day at Nsanama trading centre, a local commerce hub in Machinga District.
Numerous people are out and about; trading, shopping, loading bags of rice in a truck, boarding taxis, and the women at the cassava milling factory are hard at work, loading and grinding cassava in the mill that can be heard for miles around.
The main operator is holding a metal bar, swinging it inside the mill where they have put the dried cassava. She must swing it hard for the cassava to go down a grinder.
Another woman, her face covered in white flour, is holding a bucket under a pipe from which the flour is coming down.
“We give each other turns,” explains the woman operating the machine while wiping sweat from her face. “It will be much easier when we install the new machine because it won’t require us to physically operate it to grind the cassava.”
But they are not the only women working at the factory on this day. Outside the building, about a dozen women are doing other activities; some are washing buckets while others are loading the dried cassava into sacks to pass it on to those inside.
It is a chain of coordinated activities, with a clear division of labour.
Such is the unity of purpose that distinguishes the Nsanama Women Cooperative in the eastern district.
The group produces high-quality cassava flour and their production capacity with the new machine is about to increase, raising hope not only for members, but the entire community.
The cooperative, run and managed solely by women farmers, has received a matching grant from the Agriculture Commercialisation Project (Agcom), a $95 million project financed by World Bank to promote commercial farming.
Part of the Agcom funds is earmarked for matching grants, given to market-linked producer organisations. Beneficiaries of the production alliances are expected to contribute 30 percent of the sought funding.
“We need to work with groups that are committed and can make the contribution as a demonstration of commitment and we aim to reach groups that will be able to sustain the gains beyond the life span of the project,” says Teddie Nakhumwa, Agcom national coordinator and an agriculture economist himself.
The Nsanama Women Cooperative is among the first of 30 production organisations to qualify for the matching grant. In the first tranche, the group received about $15 000 (about K11.8 million) and purchased a state-of-the art mill.
This will significantly improve production, according to chairperson of the group Loveness Andiseni.
“We currently can only manage to produce 1.5 tonnes per month against the market demand of 50 tonnes. With the new machine we will be able to meet the demand,” says Andiseni.
The new machine will also be used for making of maize flour and livestock feed, widening the group’s customer base.
The cooperative started in 2008 as a coalition of 410 women farmers dedicated to promoting fellow women farmers with support from the German International Cooperation.
Over the years, many members have opted out due to personal reasons. With only 57 women members in 2015, they registered as a cooperative.
“My husband thought this was a group of irresponsible women so he advised me to quit but I did not,” says one member, echoing a common experience among the women. “But I’m glad that he now sees value in this because I am able to support my family.” She now has a better house built with proceeds from their farming.
Andiseni too, is building a modern house—quite an imposing structure in a neighborhood full of old grass-thatched houses.
A game changer
Agcom, known as a “flagship project for both the Malawi government and the World Bank” to those familiar with it, is a joint effort to commercialise agriculture.
The shift from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture is a critical investment area of the Malawi 2063, the national vision which aims to move the country to upper middle-income status, and supported by the current World Bank Country Partnership Framework.
“We can see that some agriculture producer organisations are making investments through the matching grants and others are already recording encouraging results like the Nsanama Women Cooperative in Machinga,” says World Bank country manager Hugh Riddell. “We therefore further expect improvements in the business environment for the overall agricultural and food sector in Malawi and that such results will benefit other farmers beyond those supported by the Agcom project.”
The five-year project intends to reach out to about 200 producer organisations with matching grants among other support components, through 2023.