Sunflower Oilseed Sector

Despite the fact that Malawi’s sunflower sector has traditionally been an underexploited resource enjoying minimal sectoral collaboration or coordination, market opportunities are beginning to sprout. With both the private and public sectors demonstrating keen interest in significant market expansion of the crop, the potential for a blossoming sunflower industry is being realized through enhanced efforts at relationship building and access to seed. One factor for demand growth is tied to foreign exchange shortages that have begun to mitigate import of edible oils. Subsequently, oil processors are turning to domestic markets for oilseed feedstock – particularly sunflower and soya. However, and in spite of this growth, smallholders continue to remain uninformed or indifferent to this opportunity for trade. Yet demand is on the rise, and it would seem that the primary missing link for significant industry expansion are, simply, improved linkages and access to information. 
A central issue in Malawi’s sunflower trade is a definitive ‘on-the-ground’ understanding of what exactly the annual crop demand is. As demand flourishes, it is essential for buyers to clearly articulate what volume of product they require per annum. For example, annual demand for sunflower over the past several years has sat around 30 - 40,000mT, yet production falls far short of this with around 17 000 mT produced in 2014. In order to facilitate enhanced production national buyers of sunflower seed need to quantifiably communicate to smallholder farmers their annual demand for the seed.
A further impediment is that until the end of 2014 certified seed was unavailable in Malawi. However, three Pannar varieties have subsequently been released and Syngenta currently have two varieties on trial. The availability of certified seed has highlighted the need for detailed technical agronomic information to inform smallholders on planting and crop husbandry practices, as well as post-harvest and marketing aspects. These circumstances should come as no surprise considering previous hurdles experienced in Malawi’s sunflower game. The reality is, small-holder farmers in Malawi currently enjoy limited capacity to realize maximum yields of high quality grain – due in part to limited access to high-yield hybrid seed in some areas, as well as limited access to comprehensive growing information. Seed suppliers and distributors need to re-examine their distribution and marketing strategies if they wish to fully exploit market opportunities. Similarly useful, national buyers of sunflower seed grain would benefit from engaging in more creative incentivization of crop supply – such as offering returning transport incentives for producers who bring their product to market.
Other considerations for those investing in the sunflower sector include offering better access to seed cake market information for oil processors. Greater local utilization of sunflower products would undoubtedly lead to an increase in production of sunflower grain in general. The benefits of investment in processing would also be a welcome boom in local economy. A final significant factor in growing the sunflower industry may be tied to additional support from the Government of the Republic of Malawi. While already working diligently to develop sunflower trade, the negation of export taxation and further explicit trade encouragement would prove to be welcome boosts to the sector’s environment.
And reasons to promote the sunflower sector in Malawi are noteworthy. Sunflower holds the power to ease rural poverty, grow foreign exports and local economy, and even offer alternative nutritional value to the nation. Fortunately for Malawian farmers, sunflower grain is easily produced in most regions, and is well suited to smallholder production due to straightforward requirements and few necessary inputs. In fact, improved certified seed, fertilizer and chemicals have demonstrated robust yields that would be a valuable product for the domestic and export markets of the small southern African country.
Moreover, sunflower crops are a beneficial investment in high production areas, generally contributing between 5% to 10% of household income. In addition to the considerable potential as a supplementary income to the poor, sunflower also adds value through the output of oil production for household use. Likewise, rural processors exploit opportunities for income at the village level. Subsequently, an increase in volumes of sunflower grain production would result in expanded employment amongst farmers, traders, loaders and factory workers. Moreover, sunflower oil processing increases the critical reach of edible oil nutrition benefits in rural areas where they are most often needed.
If producers and sellers, distributors and exporters, and the private and public sectors can improve channels of collaboration, Malawi’s sunflower sector may yet experience a very bright future in the days ahead. Due to the many benefits the unique flower has to offer, let’s hope the industry finds a way to keep its face to the sun, and out of the shadows.