By Richard Chirombo
Before March 2008, Ellena Alick was an ordinary woman from Nkhatabay in Mangochi district. For survival and basic needs, she depended entirely on her husband.
In fact, she confesses that she never thought she would ever hold K100,000 in her hands.
“Up to K100, 000, in my own hands? No, I never thought I would ever handle such an amount of money.”
Today, Alick is a member of Khunu Processing Group, a group established in 2008 with the help of the Wildlife Society of Malawi. She is not just a member; she holds the influential position of secretary.
From an ordinary woman who depended entirely on her husband to a self-dependent secretary of a fledgling business group, Alick has fulfilled one of the dreams she never believed could come true: holding K100,000 in her hands and all of it her own.
“Thanks to agri-processing, really. Since the time we learned how to process fruits such as masawu, which we use in making wine, life has never been the same for me and, indeed, many other women. I am now able to meet family needs,” says Alick.
She is the one who was talking to people, including European visitors, at their pavilion during the National Agriculture Fair in Blantyre — a leap for an ordinary woman who is the face of an organisation — convincing people to buy from local women because the products are cheaper and truly fresh.
After all, raw materials are readily available and products are not packed in bottles or other materials for long, unlike established businesses.
“Processing (fruits) is better than selling raw fruits. The difference is that raw fruits go at lower prices and are prone to getting bad. Processing and bottling, on the other hand, helps us fetch good prices while ensuring that our wine (brewed from masawu) does not go bad.”
However, she says that one of the challenges facing the group relates to the high prices of packaging materials such as bottles.
Another group that has turned ordinary women into achievers is Chikwina/Mpama Women’s Fruit Juice Producers.
The group processes juice from oranges, pineapples, mangoes and guavas after getting technical assistance from World Vision International between 2005 and 2006. Actually, the group started in 2003; but it was not until 2005 that it moulded bricks.
Group chairperson, Mary Phiri, says ever since the women made a decision to mould bricks and ask World Vision for technical help in fruit processing, money has never been a problem.
“By processing, we avoid fruit wastage, which was a recurrent problem before we ventured into processing. A half-litre bottle of orange juice goes at K150 while 1 litre is sold at K300.
It’s cheaper than foreign products, yet we do better in terms of freshness,” she says, explaining how they have skirted around foreign competition.
Phiri adds that local companies cannot beat them as well, because their products are genuine and are not corrupted by emulsifiers or food preservatives.
Through the Farmers Union of Malawi, most farmers have realised the advantages of agro-processing and have ventured into the production of such fruits as tomato juice, msangu oil, and masawu. This is happening in Nkhatabay.
It would seem that farmers are getting more innovative. The Tcholonjo Paprika Growers Association from Mikundi EPA in Mchinji/Kasungu is processing Paprika into grades, making more kwachas in the process.
Association Treasurer Matiki Robert says the returns have been encouraging.
“At first we were lacking markets; that was around 2001 when we started. Now we have the markets and are selling at as much as K200 per kg,” says Robert.
Robert, however, bemoans lack of more markets. He says the narrowness of the market gives buyers powers to dictate prices, putting the farmer who does the farming and processing at a disadvantage. Only that, with processing, the disadvantage becomes profit as well. It is always better than the cost of raw materials.