Malawi’s Burgeoning ‘Queen Of The Sunflower’

Posted December 1, 2015

Being a woman in Malawi is a difficult task these days. Households headed by women earn only 60% of the annual income of male-headed households and represent the majority of the ultra poor in the country. However, bold pioneers are making their own way in order to realize their independence, and their potential.

Malawi’s Burgeoning ‘Queen of the Sunflower’
Being a woman in Malawi is a difficult task these days. Households headed by women earn only 60% of the annual income of male-headed households and represent the majority of the ultra poor in the country. Furthermore, 61% of women in Malawi fall into the lowest wage category, while only 18% sit in the highest. Sadly, Malawi ranks 174th out of 187th on the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Gender Inequality Index. Sadly, in Malawi life is can be particularly challenging for the fairer sex it would seem.
Likewise, being a farmer in the small southern African country is an equally difficult proposition. For example, in the previous 2015 growing season heavy rains, and the subsequent floods which followed, devastated agricultural production for the year. And this catastrophe will continue to cripple Malawian smallholder farmers for some time to come, as last year’s low yields will result in both a minimum of profits for farming businesses, as well as significantly less sustenance crops for individual households. Moreover, limited cash profits from 2015 will undoubtedly impede agricultural investment in 2016, and so on, and so fourth. Smallholder farming in Malawi is not for the feint of heart.
So when you meet Alice Malika, as warm-hearted a soul as ever existed, you cannot help but be impressed. For this graceful 59 year-old Malawian widow, is a woman, an emerging sunflower farmer and a businessperson. However, as one grows to know Alice her inner fortitude and determination quickly become apparent. Ms. Malika is no slouch indeed.
Alice became interested in sunflower farming last year while attending an entrepreneurial session instituted by the National Association of Business Women in Malawi (NABW), which has been working to support 50 female entrepreneurs to grow and process sunflower seed. The intervention includes training on business development, as well as facilitated access to finance and certified seed, amongst other schemes. The project is also supported by the Malawi Oilseed Transformation programme (MOST), an initiative in turn sustained by UK Aid.
And reasons abound for promoting the sunflower sector to individuals exactly like Alice. For example, Malawian processor’s annual demand for sunflower grain is estimated at 30-40 000 mT – which, in 2012, was well above the given supply of around 11,000mT. In fact, the sector currently requires more than 83,000 smallholders to respond to unmet demand if existing producers do not expand. Furthermore, in a country urgently requiring foreign currency, sunflower product holds the capacity to significantly contribute to GDP. In 2012 alone, 1,564 mT of sunflower seed was exported, with a value of nearly $1,000,000 USD, and an average price of US $575/mT. Moreover, sunflower oil is high in calories and a good source of vitamin E, and so small-scale processing plants provide low-cost rural access to vegetable fat – valuable additions to a nation where malnutrition is on the rise. 
Getting back to Alice, she tells me that it has not been a completely smooth transition into the sunflower game. It seems that last year she cultivated around 30 kilos of sunflower seed, which grew to a yield of 38 Burundi bags (40 to 50 kg bags), or about 1,900 kg – seemingly not a bad return. However, her crop was less than perfect as she had no access to fertilizer, which would have significantly increased the size and quality of her yields. Worse yet, after harvest she found that seed buyers and processors had appreciably dropped their buying prices, and so the widow has opted to wait for either prices to rise, or… And this is where it gets interesting.
Rather than selling her seed wholesale to a buyer Alice is strongly considering another option – becoming a sunflower seed/oil processor herself – a rather bold move by a rather novice entrepreneur. Even Bill Gates would be impressed with Alice’s daring. To do so, however, is not without sacrifice, nor risk.
To become a sunflower processor Alice will have to find means for purchasing a sunflower seed oil expeller. And at a cost of MWK1,400,000 (approximately $2,500 USD) this is not a small sum for a burgeoning entrepreneur. However, with a 40% down payment, clear evidence that she can persuade sunflower growers in her area to cultivate (and so sell to her) a further 80 to 120 mT of sunflower grain in the next season, and demonstrate an articulate business plan, local fabricators might be convinced to provide her with a diesel-run sunflower expelling machine for production of vegetable oil.
To suggest what an expeller might do for Alice’s business, consider the fiscal possibilities: using the business model by MOST, an expeller would enable Alice to offer a processing service for a capacity of up to 120,000 kgs of sunflower seed a year. Alice would then generate potential profits of MK6,000,000+ (approximately $11,000+ USD), 35% of which is generated from a milling service charge, and 65% being earned from the sale of leftover sunflower cake used for livestock feed.
Certainly these figures represent an ideal year, and do not consider the many expenses and pitfalls which Alice would have to deal with. However, such circumstances would instantly position Alice as a player in her farming district of Nkhotakota, Central Malawi, and radically alter her potential for success. Moreover, it would make Alice an exception to Malawi’s standard for women, rather than the regular, generally marginalized rule.
With monumental hurdles already in place against them, it is very difficult for women to move forward in Malawi. To add to an already challenging business environment, women are much less likely to own land (only 32% of women are individual holders of agricultural land); and, female-headed households are most likely to own very small plots. Additionally, women in Malawi have less access to agricultural extension services (14% of women have access versus 18% of men), and less access to improved seeds and fertilizer. So, it should come as no surprise that as a result of these constraints, male-managed plots produce on average 25% more per hectare than female-managed plots.
Yet the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates that if women had the same access to productive resources than men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20% to 30%. This is a significant reason to ensure that interventions focused on increasing productivity include a deliberate and comprehensive effort to target female farmers, particularly those of female-headed households.
However, one advantage for Alice is her product: sunflower seed. As the sunflower sector in Malawi is dominated by smallholders and is easily produced without needing significant inputs, the crop lends itself well to female farmers. Of additional benefit, sunflower is a crop that has been largely ignored by men, so far.
Nonetheless, one gets the feeling that Alice will more than meet many of these tests. ‘In life, because I am a single-parent, I have faced many challenges. So, I have learned to always think positively, and not negatively. I am not afraid to do business, and processing is my next step. I will pray, and I will work hard’, she articulates.
Clearly upon first meeting her, it would be difficult to doubt Alice’s capacity for hard work. However, after speaking with her, it is glaringly obvious that she also holds enormous amounts of intellect and creativity which guide her in her work. Which is a good thing for this burgeoning ‘Queen of the Sunflower.’ In Malawi’s male-dominated business environment she will need all the tenacity and intellect she can muster. Unfairly, she will also need a good dose of luck as well.


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