Soybean Oilseed Sector

The famous inventor Thomas Edison once wrote, ‘Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.’ Today, in Malawi’s agricultural business environment, opportunity is found in many a smallholder farmer’s field throughout the country’s central region, and is dressed as a small, beige legume – generally known as the ‘soybean’. Protein rich, soybean is a vital crop when considering the nation’s nutritional needs. Moreover, as the 35th largest producer of soybean globally, the crop holds great potential as a source of foreign exchange for the small southern African country.
And what makes soybean such a great opportunity to be a serious contributor to many of the country’s growth issues is that the legume is relatively easy to grow, with minimal inputs and good yields. In fact, such value is being placed on soybean’s potential that the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MoAFS) has articulated a ‘National Aim’ to “increase productivity of soybean from the current less than 1mT per ha towards the potential yield of 3.5 mT per ha, while at the same time promoting the utilization of the crop in order to meet prevailing domestic and export markets.”
However, soybean is a crop with a somewhat checkered past. Strongly touted in the late 80s, the agricultural output was also then viewed as a panacea for the country’s markets. Nevertheless, when prices collapsed early in the next decade the sector experienced significant setbacks. Yet confidence returned early in the new millennium, and production was enhanced - mainly due to poultry import protection policies instituted by the Government of the Republic of Malawi, which, in turn, stimulated greater soybean cake need in the domestic feed industry. Subsequently soybean is now recognized as a vital smallholder oilseed and pulse crop for Malawi, particularly in the state’s National Export Strategy (NES) and the Agricultural Sector Wide Approach Strategic Plan (ASWAp-SP).
Despite the great potential for growth, the soybean sector currently requires concentrated efforts before it can fully realize optimal yields. One central issue is the utilization of inoculant for the treatment of seed. Easily applicated, inoculant utilizes the rhizobia bacteria to assist seeds in more effective methods of bonding with existing nitrogen in the growing environment. Greater access to nitrogen enhances growth of soybean and other legumes, and so increases grain quality and yields by up to 40%, and as such, could revolutionize the sector. Unfortunately, the use of inoculant has been somewhat resisted by smallholder farmers for a number of reasons including ignorance of the benefits of inoculant; misunderstandings surrounding how inoculant is most efficiently utilized; regular availability; and, cost and logistics surrounding acquisition of the agricultural input. What is required now is for the private sector to ‘scale-up’ investment in inoculant distribution and technical information. Likewise, public-sector actors also need to work with smallholder farmers to better articulate inoculant’s availability, use and benefits.
Another concern for Malawi’s soybean sector is rooted in the employment of certified soybean seed as a means for improving yields and grain quality. Certified seed offers significant returns on investment due to issues of yield reliability and quality – as opposed to the current practice of recycling seeds, which can be a detriment to crops after several years of reuse. Much like oculant, however, certified seed is yet to be readily available in every soybean farming community, and at every growing season. Of equal concern are smallholder farmer’s attitudes towards regular investment in certified soybean seed. Thus, real need exists for both public and private-sector actors to enhance dialogue surrounding the value of utilizing certified seed with smallholder farmers in Malawi.
One positive indicator for the soybean sector is the growing availability of mechanized threshers. With private and public-sector initiatives currently working to increase access to soybean threshers, considerable crop efficiencies are now being realized in soybean production. Executed manually, the separation of soybean from stalks and husks can be an extremely time-consuming labor, which may require weeks of concentrated effort by an entire farming family. With the growing introduction of mechanized soybean threshers – in both electric and more mobile diesel versions – separation of harvest yields may take only an hour or two.
Beyond the obvious benefits of reduced household labor for women and children, efficiencies gained by mechanized soybean threshing allows farmers greater time for agricultural work and administrations - with additional costs being negligible even for a smallholder farmer. Moreover, a more efficient crop processing will undoubtedly encourage more Malawian smallholder farmers to further turn their attention to soybean farming.
So it would seem the protein laden legume may be ready to blossom as an agricultural source of income in Malawi. With the advent of oculant, and growing introduction of mechanized threshers and certified seed, soybean crops might very well prove to be a boon for Malawi’s domestic and export markets. All that is missing is for sectoral actors to leverage these prospects and wok with smallholder farmers to realize optimal utilities. And unlike Edison’s metaphor mentioned above, these opportunities really wont require overalls and hardwork, but rather the simple exploitation of existing frameworks, and a keen exchange of ideas among all the interested stakeholders.