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Conditions for Malawian farmers are tough - with over 80 percent of agriculture reliant on rainfall, the shifting climate means farmers have their work cut out.
The portrait of a struggling farmer, engaged in hard labour for small reward, remains the dominant image when many Africans - particularly young people - think about a career in farming. But in Malawi, and all over the continent, many entrepreneurs are showing that farm labour isn’t the only way to be involved in agriculture and keep food in steady supply in the face of climate change.
Just south of Lake Malawi, Flora Kahumbe is tending to her busy shop called CashPro by Monkey Bay. Her shelves are full of everything local farmers could need to make their crops grow strong: improved seeds that can cope with drought, crop protection products to ward off pests and diseases, and fertiliser.
But it’s not just inputs Flora provides. She has received training from the Rural Market Development Trust (RUMARK) in storing seeds and chemicals, safe application of pesticides and the best ways of using the right types of fertiliser, so she can pass on this knowledge when she sells her products to farmers.
Employing three people in each of her two shops, Flora is a businesswoman who is not only providing valuable information and tools to farmers to boost their yields, but is also offering steady jobs for six people in her community.
A new report from the Montpellier Panel of experts in agriculture and development argues that investment in education and finance to help entrepreneurs in the agriculture sector, like Flora, get set up and succeed, is the key to unlocking millions of jobs in Africa and meeting rapidly increasing demand for nutritious, varied and processed foods on the continent.
An important recommendation of the report is for organisations like RUMARK to receive support from donors to train more people in vital business skills, and equip them with knowledge to become “agro-dealers”.
In 2012, 14,098 agro-dealers like Flora were trained by the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa - people who are now equipped to earn money in the agriculture sector without being farmers themselves.
Following the improved seeds back from Flora’s store to the company that produced, processed, certified and packaged them, Funwe Farms, reveals another example of reliable, year-round employment for Malawians. Owner Carrie Osborne employs more than 150 people from her surrounding community and donates heifers from her dairy herd to a milk-bulking group that helps women improve nutrition and incomes from dairy sales.
And going back even further, to the Chitedze Research station that has been developing seeds resistant to disease and drought, uncovers even more employment opportunities.
Once Flora’s products have helped farmers in the community grow healthy produce, there’s demand among urban populations for them to be processed into snacks and other products for sale in retail outlets. More work. More jobs. More food. More wealth.
Significant gaps in finance can be a major obstacle for businesses like Flora’s. Even if microfinance is available, people may not have had the training they need to put together a business plan, for example, which would be a pre-requisite for receiving a loan. And when businesses outgrow microfinance, but aren’t ready for mainstream banking, there are very few financial services that will cater to the “missing middle”.
More institutions that train small businessmen and women to write a well-designed business plan and marketing strategy are needed, so these enterprises can create long-term demand for their produce, and cease to be a risky investment for private banks.
Growing populations need not be considered an obstacle to development in African countries like Malawi. Instead, we can look at youth as a ready workforce to power the agriculture business that must develop rapidly to meet rising food demand.
If people are given the education and financing they need to start up businesses all along the agricultural value chain - from research to retail – Africa could unlock a generation of entrepreneurs.
Emily Alpert is deputy director at Agriculture for Impact, which acts as the convenor for the Montpellier Panel.