Not Afraid to Fail. Innovating Malawi’s Soybean Sector.


Posted June 25, 2015

Technical innovation revolutionizing Malawi's soybean sector

Frederic Kawalewale is not afraid to fail. In fact, the Managing Director of Agriculture Input Supplies Limited (AISL), is that rarest of individuals who actually embraces failure, and finds ways to harness it for future successes.
 
An accountant by training, and with a multitude of experience working with leading organizations such as the World Bank, USAID, the African Development Bank and the Red Cross, Mr. Kawalewale holds a long history of work in the Malawian agricultural sector. Moreover, he has experienced firsthand the highs and lows of innovative agricultural ventures. However, Fred would be the first to tell you that it has been these ups and downs which have honed his skill as a businessman, and which continue to guide him to success along the private-sector path.
 
Through this long history he developed the contacts, industry knowledge and business vision he now holds, and which has made AISL a key player in Malawi’s soybean sector. Just a few short years ago Fred connected with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), an agricultural non-profit think-tank based in Nigeria. In his mutual work with IITA Mr. Kawalewale became aware of the Rhizobia bacteria, an agricultural oculant which has proven exceptionally useful for the enhancement of soybean yields. By making it easier for soybean seed to draw nitrogen from the crop’s surrounding growing environment, oculant increases harvest yields by up to 40%, and oftentimes more. Subsequently, the potential impact of oculant for Malawi’s smallholder soybean farmers could be a game changer, and due to his extensive experience in agriculture, Fred recognized this opportunity the moment he spotted it.
 
An entrepreneur at heart, Mr. Kawalewale immediately went looking for technical expertise in order to capitalize on the potential prospect. He found an enthusiastic but somewhat skeptical collaborator in Malawi’s Department of Agricultural Research Services (DARS) who had been annually developing around 20,000 packets of oculant for several years, but had yet to scale up the programme. After lengthy negotiations AISL came to an agreement with DARS to produce 18,000 sachets of ‘Nitrofix’ in 2014, and with very positive outcomes.
 
Now, with improved packaging and technical information, the organizations are looking to exponentially grow production of Ntirofix sachets to over 200,000 for 2015. This growth would serve to significantly enhance oculant’s presence in Malawi’s soybean sector, and thus dramatically increase yields in the country. With a keen understanding of Malawi’s agricultural distribution chains, and business contacts to capitalize on such an opportunity, Fred is looking to exponentially grow smallholder farmer’s access to oculant, and so revolutionize the nation’s soybean crops.
 
Speaking thoughtfully of the work of growing an agricultural business in Malawi it is clear that AISL’s Managing Director is quite reflective about how he steers the company’s business decisions. ‘Be of service to the needs of those you want to do business with – enable a garden to grow’, suggests Fred when asked what his primary business philosophy is. ‘Seek opportunity, and promote technologies that promote these opportunities’ he adds. ‘And whatever else you do, don’t be afraid to fail, embrace it in fact’, he adds.
 
With a potential 40% growth in soybean production to be realized, those in the Malawian soybean sector undoubtedly hope this project does not fail. For smallholder farmers the stakes are indeed high, and the potential financial impact could be significant. However, Fred is not worried at all. For an entrepreneur of his skill and experience, failure is just the next step to success. And in the matter of soybean production in Malawi, Fred’s success may very well be a boon for many.

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