Late in Life, but Long on Heart

Posted December 1, 2015

Margaret Wantheza and Sallah Kanthiti have experienced a great deal of life. Nonetheless, the two are growing entrepreneurs who are beginning to realize their value in the agricultural sector.

Late in Life, But Long on Heart.
Margaret Wantheza and Sallah Kanthiti have experienced a great deal of life. With Margaret being 61, and Sallah aged 47, both of the women are widowed neighbors who reside in Nkhanya Village, Mchinji, in the Central Region of Malawi. Truly, the two have known their fair share of trials and tribulations in one of the world’s poorest countries. Just last year, in fact, Malawi experienced some of the most untimely and intense rains Margaret has seen in her lifetime. The expected recovery from the floods may take years.
What’s more, the two live in a country that is not particularly liberal for women. Malawi ranks 174th out of 187th on the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Gender Inequality Index. Some of the reasons for this ranking are located in the many unbalances Malawi presents between men and women. For example, women are significantly less educated than men generally speaking. Among the poorest, women have one year of education on average while men are exposed to four years of schooling. Unsurprisingly, women dedicate a high proportion of time to domestic work – around 30 hours per week. As a result, women have significantly less time to engage in income-generating activities, spending about 17 hours per week making a living as compared to 27 hours for men.
As a result of these realities, issues of material inequality predictably arise. Over 21% of exclusively female-owned plots are managed by men, and women have less access to agricultural extension services, meaning less access to improved seeds and fertilizer. Only 24.3% of female-headed households own mobile phones – compared with 40% of male-headed households. Over 68% of women whose husbands have cash earnings report that their husbands alone decide how the money is utilized; and 19% of women report not to have any decision-making power at the household-level at all.
All of the above clearly supports the notion that it is extremely difficult for the majority of women in Malawi to realize any sort of self-determination or true economic empowerment.
However, it should be noted that Margaret and Sallah are intriguing exceptions to their challenging environments. You see, both of these strong and determined women are entrepreneurs who are only now beginning to make their way in business in the Malawian agricultural sector – the groundnut sector to be precise.
It would seem that groundnuts, or peanuts as they are referred to in the West, are a less than desirable business for Malawian men, and so have often been traditionally perceived to be a ‘women’s crop’, with 50% of groundnut farmers being women, including 20% being female-headed households – a significant shift when compared to other agriculture in Malawi. In reality, however, the division of labour in the various stages of groundnut production, processing and trade is complex. Early stages of land preparation, weeding, and planting are tasks frequently shared by both women and men on jointly managed plots. Yet most of the time consuming tasks, such as stripping and shelling groundnuts are usually undertaken by women, while transporting the groundnuts to market is almost exclusively controlled by men.
So how is it that these two mature women (mature by Malawian standards that is) have managed to find themselves at the heart of the groundnut trade in their area? Well, they have obtained technology that any of their groundnut peers would revere, but few have access to: groundnut-shellers. For the uninitiated, a groundnut sheller is a mechanism which is used to efficiently remove the tough ‘shells’ or ‘husks’ which surround the groundnut. This job of ‘un-husking’ 50 kg bags of groundnuts by hand is extremely time consuming, and often requires weeks to process even a small harvest. Subsequently, a groundnut-sheller, which can do a month of work in hours, saves enormous time for farmers and their families, and so is an extremely attractive service. Owners of groundnut shellers provide a key service to groundnut farmers, who come to have their groundnuts shelled for a fee. It costs approximately MWK 500 (approximately $0.91 USD) for 50 kg of groundnuts to be shelled, but through this investment farmers save enormous time that would have spent shelling groundnuts by hand.
The two budding entrepreneurs came into the groundnut business through an opportunity created by the Malawi Oilseed Sector Transformation (MOST) programme, an initiative supported by UK Aid. Through MOST, the women were introduced to local groundnut-sheller fabricating companies, who worked out deals for financing. The programme believes that by facilitating business relationships between budding entrepreneurs such as Margaret and Sallah, for access to business tools and technology such as mechanical groundnut-shellers, Malawi’s interests are twice served. In one sense, farmers, particularly women, are given the opportunity to run a profitable business selling groundnut shelling services, and secondly, groundnut farmers can access a key service that enables them to save time and increase their production. This all means that the Malawian groundnut sector becomes more efficient and beneficial to the country.
The question that arises, however, is why would these women take on the significant risk of outlaying MWK 40,000 (approximately $73 USD) for a machine? The reason is simple: family. Even at their age and station in life, both have families which rely upon them. Margaret has grandchildren who need school fees paid for, 6 in fact. Sallah has a 92 year old mother and 4 grandchildren with similar requirements. And as widows they both need to continue supporting themselves as well.
With examples such as Margaret and Sallah in mind, MOST’s groundnut-sheller initiative, as well as numerous other projects, are not simply about giving opportunity to distinct individuals. Quite the contrary. Research demonstrates that investing in women, including female-headed households, is likely to have a significant impact on broader development outcomes relating to health and education of the community, as spending patterns of women tend to be more in favour of family welfare-related expenditures. A case in point is that, although on average poorer than male-headed households, malnutrition rates among children from female-headed households in Malawi are significantly lower than in male-headed households. Findings such as this strongly suggest that investing in women is critical to achieve Malawi’s broader development outcomes.
Speaking with Margaret and Sallah, they too make a strong case for these types of initiatives. While personally falling ill last year, and so experiencing a number of business hiccups, Margaret has big plans for the upcoming growing year, and hopes to make a permanent hire to better expedite business. Likewise, Sallah has already expanded to a shop, purchased a machine to make peanut butter and/or peanut flour, and is looking to significantly expand her business. She does note that, ‘At first I had challenges because I didn’t understand the finer points of the machine. But after some training I mastered it, and business was good. This year I expect to grow the business, and am planting a large groundnut crop myself. In two years I hope to have built a full factory for peanut butter, groundnut flour and cooking oil. I have even been thinking about expanding into soy and sunflower! I will call it ‘Chitezi Agro Processors’ in memory of my late father.’
With a good growing season, wise decisions, and consummate luck, either or both of these strong role-models may realize some noteworthy success. However, they will need to be efficient over the next few seasons. As groundnut production is becoming more commercialised and profitable, a visible trend exists which suggests that men are moving into the sector. This sway is compounded by an economic shift away from other large, male-dominated cash crops, such as tobacco. For the time being, however, the groundnut sector remains theirs for the taking. Enormous wealth of experiences and life wisdom will undoubtedly aid these two strong women to meet this challenge head on, and find the success they aim for and surely deserve.


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