Entrepreneurs and Value-Added Foods: How Capacity Building is Boosting Trade and Productivity in Malawi
It’s the age-old tale of supply and demand. Farmers need reliable buyers to reach markets and earn an income. Processors need reliable suppliers of raw materials to make value-added products to sell to customers. In Malawi, farmers and processors alike are identifying and addressing opportunities to improve food product quality and productivity. It’s not easy. All business owners face their own challenges. On the processor end, people like Robert Nkhulembe — Technical Lead for Processing and Value Addition for the USDA-funded Malawi Strengthening Inclusive Markets for Agriculture (MSIKA) project — can help.
The MSIKA project, a Food for Progress initiative implemented by Land O’Lakes International Development, is facilitating increased crop production, improved processing and market connectivity with a goal of boosting productivity and trade of fruits and vegetables. Robert’s role is to identify and provide customized support to processors with potential. With a degree in Food Technology from the University of Malawi, experience working in a dairy processing plant and five years working at the Government of Malawi’s Bureau of Standards, Robert understands the challenges that processors face and how to work together to take advantage of untapped market opportunities.
“Malawi only has a few significant processors, so this is an area we can improve. No matter the size of the business, we know that a little support — like finance, equipment and good manufacturing practices — can have direct positive impact,” says Robert.
Robert and the MSIKA team identify processors to support with a set of criteria, including geography and focus on specific value chains — ones that directly link to farmers being supported by MSIKA to improve productivity and product quality. Then, MSIKA looks to the business owners: Do they have passion for their business? A realistic vision to grow? Are they ready to advance?
For Naturals Limited, the answer to all three questions is “Yes!” Owned by entrepreneur Towera Jalakasi, Naturals processes fruit from baobab trees into juice, oil and animal feed. However, baobab trees are becoming scarcer, and it takes over 10 years for a young tree to bear fruit for harvest. Looking to diversify her business, Towera identified two additional opportunity value chains: tomatoes for paste and jam and mangoes for juice.
Having worked with over 180 baobab fruit suppliers, she has confidence is her ability to grow her supply network for tomatoes and mangos. To get her there, Robert and the MSIKA team work with Towera in several ways: one-on-one business plan consultations, on-site food quality and hygiene trainings with her employees and group trainings with any of the other 24 processors currently being supported by MSIKA.
“She already had some equipment, a processing facility, knowledge in processing, access to formal markets and good business acumen,” says Robert. “With her business plan in place, we worked with her to identify her biggest hurdles in bringing the product to market: additional equipment, access to financing and internationally-recognized food safety and quality standards to reach high value markets.”
Robert learns something new with each of the processors he supports. He sees that Towera, like many entrepreneurs, has trouble accessing finance due to high interest rates. More private sector investment is needed in Malawi to buy down risk. He knows that Towera is working to address some of that risk in improving product quality in her factory.
“Her approach is effective,” says Robert. “She teaches her employees what she learns from MSIKA about things like product cross-contamination and how temperature and time control impact food safety and product quality. She wants them to reach the solution on their own without having to abruptly force them to adopt new practices.” As a result, Towera’s employees have asked for new uniforms, integrated more rigid cleaning processes into their daily shifts and requested a thermometer to monitor the juice pasteurization process. “These improvements make a huge difference in product quality and thus the market potential for trade. At the same time, they take time to implement — so we must balance enthusiasm for progress with realistic timelines,” adds Robert.
When processors like Naturals build their own capacity to succeed, they not only support farmers and their communities but also contribute to Malawi’s overall economic and nutritional health. Robert’s role in partnering with value-added processors like Naturals is one important piece of MSIKA’s broader market systems approach to improving Malawi’s productivity and trade of fruits and vegetables.
Towera is enthusiastic about her business’s future. “For Naturals, the support I have received from Robert and MSIKA has helped me to improve efficiencies in my business. Come December we will be qualified for full certification with the Malawi Bureau of Standards,” says Towera. “Our newly established standard operating procedures help employees understand their roles and responsibilities and enable us to work better with customers. The full certification will enable us to diversify further. Our opportunities are limitless.”