Woman storekeeper boosts Malawi farming

NEPAD seeks to bring fertilizer nearer to villagers
From Africa Renewal: 
page 13

On a small farming plot not far from her grocery store, Dinnah Kapiza points at the different types of fertilizers, explaining how each should be used. Local farmers gather around her, asking questions about the pros and cons of each brand she sells at Tisaiwale Variety Shop in Mponela, 60 kilometres from the Malawian capital, Lilongwe.

Fertilizer and seed distribution in Malawi: Shopkeepers can help supply farmersFertilizer and seed distribution in Malawi: Shopkeepers can help supply farmers not only with inputs, but also agricultural advice.
Photograph: Alamy Images / Steve Morgan

The 58-year-old businesswoman is one of a new breed of “agro-dealers,” who not only sell products, but are certified to advise customers on how to best use them.

“We don’t want them to just buy,” Ms. Kapiza told Africa Renewal. “We want them to know the best fertilizer to use for their needs and how to use it. You can’t just use chemicals any way you want. Most are fatal. As trained agro-dealers, we have demonstration plots. When people ask about a specific product, I can say: ‘Please come and see; it’s right here and this is what you do’.”

She adds: “Because I help them with farming tips, they return to buy my supplies. So it is advertising, as well as helping people. We are improving farming methods, therefore food security and economic welfare. Everybody benefits in the end.”

Struggling for food

Small-scale farmers in Africa are struggling to meet food needs. Poor soil, notes Maria Wanzala, an expert with the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), is one of the major reasons they cannot produce enough food to supply the more than 204 million people on the continent who suffer from hunger and malnutrition.

“Africa loses the equivalent of over $4 bn worth of soil nutrients per year,” Ms. Wanzala, the NEPAD’s fertilizer adviser, points out. “Yet small-scale African farmers use little or no fertilizer to nourish the impoverished soil. They use only about 8 kilogrammes per hectare, versus a world average of 100 kilos per hectare.”

Reducing hunger on the continent, stresses Ms. Wanzala, must begin with addressing its severely depleted soils. Improving agriculture is a priority under NEPAD, Africa’s development framework. In June, NEPAD promoters held a Fertilizer Summit in Abuja, Nigeria, that brought together heads of state and diverse stakeholders. Subsequently, they adopted 12 action points that included taking concrete steps, by 2007, to improve farmers’ access to fertilizers by developing agro-dealer networks in rural areas.

Helping farmers

Aaron Kamwaza is one of the farmers who has benefited from improved agro-dealer networks. He grows maize, groundnuts and vegetables near Ms. Kapiza’s store. Easier access to fertilizer, says the farmer, has boosted his yields.

“The soil here is very, very poor. Without feeding it fertilizers, you get little out of it,” Mr. Kamwaza said. “This is why I’m happy the store sells everything we need right here in our village. It saves us extra money and time. We don’t have to go to the city.”

If farmers do not have supplies, they cannot do anything with their knowledge, says Richard Chapweteka, the country director of the Citizens Network for Foreign Affairs (CNFA). The organization seeks innovative ways to boost rural incomes by empowering farmers and entrepreneurs.

With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation in the US, CNFA started a guarantee fund to help grocery store owners, like Ms. Kapiza, add agricultural products — such as fertilizer, seeds, small tools and pesticides — to their shelves.

In 2000, Mr. Chapweteka said, the Malawian government commissioned a study into problems faced by farmers. “They found that the distance the farmers travel to buy seeds, fertilizers and other supplies is a big handicap. We started training storekeepers, giving them the means to procure products so farmers can get what they need at their doorstep and cut down on travel costs and time.”

Credit guarantees, he says, are paramount to storekeepers like Ms. Kapiza who cannot get bank loans. The CNFA provides credit against which they can purchase supplies from participating companies in Malawi, such as Pana, SeedCo and Omnia Fertilizers.

“It was difficult to get a loan, as I needed collateral,” recalls Ms. Kapiza. “With the credit guarantee, companies gave me goods. In 30 days, I must pay them back. I always pay on time. In the end they gave me even more than what CNFA could guarantee.”

Ms. Kapiza says she serves an area of about 9,000 people. At first she sold household essentials such as bread and cooking oil. But business was slow, so she diversified. “There has been a 70 per cent increase in sales since I added seeds, pesticides and fertilizers to my store.”

Prospects looking up

Things are looking up so much that she now employs four people: two cashiers and two men to guard the store. Confident and enthusiastic about her future, she is hardly recognizable as the same woman who thought her world had come to a standstill seven years ago when her husband died. Ms. Kapiza opened the store soon after to help with income to care for her 10 children. Her hope now, she says, is to open at least two more shops.

“When you are determined to do something, do it and mean it. Don’t say: ‘Because my husband is gone, I should give up.’ This is my advice to women,” she said. “CNFA gives the credit, but we provide the hard work.”

The guarantee fund, Mr. Chapweteka observes, has worked well. “We have had, over the last five years, less than 5 per cent default out of 450 agro-dealers, which is insignificant. We are happy with the system. Programmes that work, like this one, need to happen on a much larger scale — pilot projects will not take us anywhere. Continent-wide action, under NEPAD, will hopefully open new opportunities and markets that motivate farmers.”

Ms. Wanzala, the NEPAD fertilizer expert, concurs: “The Malawi project illustrates one of the actions NEPAD is trying to promote. A woman like Dinnah Kapiza bettering her income as one of the best agro-dealers in her area, while helping farmers get fertilizer, is an example of exactly what we are working to achieve all over Africa.”