Sesame Oilseed Sector

Sesame Sector in Malawi
Sesame (Sesamum Indicum) is a drought-tolerant flowering plant from the sesamum genus. Domesticated over 3,000 years ago, sesame is one of the oldest oil seed crops and is cultivated in warm climates around the world, most notably in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It is an annual plant that reaches a height of 50-100cm. The sesame fruit is capsular with four-lobes (see adjacent picture) holding 50-100 seeds. Upon maturity, the fruit capsule splits open releasing the seeds. Sesame seeds are small, at 3-4mm long and 2mm wide and weighing an average of 20-40mg. Seed characteristics (size, colour and form) vary depending on variety. There are many sesame seed cultivars, but the most internationally traded varieties are off-white in colour. There are also black and brown varieties.

Sesame is primarily for human consumption and consumed both as seed and as an oil. Sesame seed is used to enhance the flavour and appearance of baked goods e.g. hamburger buns and simit. It is the key ingredient in tahini, a sesame paste used as a dip/sauce or ingredient in Arabic cooking. In some Asian and African cultures, the seeds are ground into flour and formed into a ball, often as a substitute for meat proteins. 

In Malawi, traditionally sesame (‘chitowe’ in Chichewa) has been grown as a food crop, but more recently it is becoming a cash crop. The most common varieties are brown, some of which was brought from Japan by a former Ambassador. Other seed is likely to have come from neighbouring countries. Most of the seed has been recycled many times and has probably mostly lost its vigour and also its original improved characteristics if it had them.

Sesame is cultivated as a standalone or inter-cropped with maize or other food crops such as sorghum, millet and pigeon pea by poor women and to a lesser degree by men. National sesame production for the 2014/2015 growing season is estimated by industry players at 3,000MT, of which 1,000-2,000MT is exported through traders and cotton ginners. Government of Malawi (GoM) estimates appear to be lower than this, but recent data is not available.

Although sesame currently occupies a marginal role in the national economy and within smallholder livelihood strategies, a MOST supported survey for this Market Systems Analysis (MSA) conducted in Mikalango and Livunzu Extension Planning Areas (EPAs) (Chikwawa District) based on a small sample found reported average gross profit margins of 58% in latter and 64% in the former. This compares well to cotton, as sesame reaches higher prices, has lower input costs and similar yields making it potentially more profitable for the grower. Similar to cotton, sesame thrives in dry climates and has low water requirements. It can be planted late, as it benefits from avoiding the heavy rain period in the early and mid-season.

Further, sesame has potential to disproportionately benefit female smallholders, as it is currently mostly grown by women and, if well-managed, the move towards increased productivity and commercialisation can safeguard or even expand women’s role and decision-making power in sesame production.