A Women’s Mushroom Growing Group is not Ashamed of Their Success
Mphatso Kafuwa contributed to the content of this post.
The Feed the Future Strengthening Agricultural and Nutrition Extension (SANE) Activity, implemented by AgReach at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, gave a group of women farmers in Malawi the voice to ask for assistance to start a mushroom growing enterprise. SANE is working with Malawi’s Department of Agricultural Extension Services to improve the functionality of extension governance platforms by empowering farmers to demand services to improve their livelihoods.
When the SANE Activity began in 2015, the Government of Malawi already had a well-designed National Extension Policy enshrined in its decentralization policy. The policy outlines a demand-driven system in which engaged citizens request services and the appropriate providers respond to those requests in a coordinated manner. SANE has been working with the Department of Agricultural Extension Services to make sure the policy is clear at all levels and among all stakeholders, such as farmers, extension educators, nongovernmental organizations, research institutes, private companies, and donors.
When a small women’s farming group in Blantyre participated in a village farmer field school and learned about the possibility to demand further training to improve their livelihoods, they were inspired to create Mwayiwathu Sagonja, meaning ‘Our Luck Can Never Bring Us Shame.’ Having mastered many of the skills taught during the farmer field school for which they earned certificates of completion in 2017, these ambitious women were determined to utilize their new knowledge and embark on a journey into agribusiness and enterprise. They selected mushroom cultivation as a feasible and optimal opportunity, though they lacked the technical capacity and start-up capital to make this dream a reality.
Thanks to agricultural committees whose capacities have been strengthened by SANE, Blantyre currently boasts a vibrant and operative District Agricultural Extension Services System (DAESS) with platforms that retain outstanding reputations for functionality. In these platforms, stakeholder coordination has increased, along with better, more synchronized responses to farmer demands.
Mwayiwathu Sagonja, having heard about DAESS, brought a formal request for support to the local Village Agricultural Committee, who in turn took the issue to the Area Stakeholder Panel (ASP) because no one on the village level had the capacity or resources to help the women with mushroom farming. The ASP was also unable to assist, so they passed the request up to the Blantyre District Stakeholder Panel (DSP), where a diverse set of stakeholders could consider the issue. Several DSP members were eager to help these women fulfill their vision. One DSP member from the District Community Development Office committed to helping build the capacity of the group by providing them with training on mushroom cultivation. Another stakeholder, the District Agriculture Development Officer, linked the group to the Village Challenge Fund, a financing mechanism whereby small-scale farmers can apply for funding through an International Fund for Agricultural Development Project operational in the district. The group was successful in securing a MK 1,200,000 (1,600 USD) grant from the Village Challenge Fund in 2017, which jumpstarted their mushroom farming project.
Through the DAESS platforms, Mwayiwathu Sagonja has acquired technical and financial support to be grown into a successful mushroom production group. They have increased production from one shed to four in the last two years and identified a stable value chain for sales, including local supermarkets and farmers. With profits from these sales, the women have been able to sponsor themselves to participate in events such as agriculture fairs where they are linked to even more potential customers.
Sharing profits among group members has improved livelihoods and food security in ways that would not have been possible without the new mushroom enterprise. For example, members have reported being able to pay school fees for their children, buy goats for their families, as well as corrugated iron sheets to fortify roofing on their houses.
Improving functionality of grassroots institutions is essential to connect farmers to available service providers to meet their needs. The women had a vision and a demand, and the process worked because the platform was functional and well-understood. The farmers were supported not only with technical training and guidance, but they were assisted in securing essential capital to make their business a reality.