Achieving gender and youth inclusivity in Malawi through Productive Alliances

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Achieving gender and youth inclusivity in Malawi through Productive Alliances Achieving gender and youth inclusivity in Malawi through Productive Alliances

When I was young, there was a common adage “youth are the leaders of tomorrow,” and I was always looking forward, with optimism that this tomorrow will indeed come one day.

When I graduated from the youth bracket, I realized that it’s time to rethink the adage and perhaps express it as “youth as leaders now.”

The youth are the largest generation of the current humankind. Half of the world’s population is less than 30 years and nearly 90% of the world’s youth live in less developed countries. It is therefore not surprising to see that Malawi's population is largely youthful, with 80%of its population aged below 35.

As young people seek out what they believe to be profitable and business-focused careers, they are increasingly turning away from agriculture and merely considering it as a backup plan or last option. Presently, the average age of farmers in Malawi is 60. These phenomena limit the sustainability potential of the agriculture and can prevent the transfer of good agriculture practices and knowledge to the younger generation.

The World Bank estimates that a demographic shift of youth back to agriculture in Africa can generate 11–15% increase in gross domestic product. For the youth to be attracted to agriculture, there is need to have positive image of the sector while embracing use of ICT and digital technologies. As the sector cannot absorb all youth in agriculture, there is also need to explore non-farm opportunities for them.

In Malawi, women comprise 52% of population and 80% of the labor force. According to 2015/16 Malawi Demographic Health Survey, 59% of employed women and 44% of employed men work in agriculture, which is the largest employment sector in Malawi. However, large gender productivity gaps in the agriculture sector remain wide. For example, farm plots managed by men produce an average of 25% higher yields than plots managed by women. The gender gaps are due to women having unequal use of land inputs, lower access to farm labor, inadequate access to improved agricultural inputs and technology and lower participation in the cash crop/export crop value chains. The cost of gender gaps in agricultural productivity amount to $100 million per year. Closing these gender gaps in agriculture could potentially lift nearly 238,000 people in Malawi out of poverty.

The World Bank-funded Agricultural Commercialization (AGCOM) project, among other interventions, aims to break gender barriers and strengthening inclusivity of women and youth while commercializing agriculture. Anchored by a Productive Alliance model, farmers organize themselves into groups or cooperatives, empowered and supported with matching grants to beef up their production, while creating linkages with markets. The matching grants supports business plans up to 70%, while remaining 30% is contributed by the producer organization, selected in a competitive manner. Already, 40,000 smallholder farmers have been supported under the project, of whom 22,000 are women, and 11,000 are youth. Presently, farmers have mobilized their own resources to the tune of $2.1 million, working in over 20 value chains.

One of such beneficiaries is “women-only group” called Nsanama Cassava Producers and Marketing Cooperative, involved in cassava production and value addition, processing high-quality cassava flour and other bakery products. The market base includes confectionery companies and individual consumers in Machinga, Zomba and Blantyre districts. The group was supported by AGCOM with matching grants amounting to 41.5 million kwacha (MWK) ($55,000), with own contribution of MWK18 million ($23,800). Activities supported include construction of cassava processing factory and installation of processing machine.

Through this grant, including their own contribution, they were able to improve their cassava production volumes from 104 to 169 metric tons, with sales increasing by 63% within just one year of grant support. New products emerged including cassava starch, which boosted income for the cooperative members while stimulating increased production of cassava in the surrounding area by at least 20%. With the new processing machine procured, cassava flour production will likely increase twice fold while also diversifying to other products like maize flour and livestock feed.

A youth only group, ACADES Youth Farmer Cooperative, is involved in legumes production. Conceptualized by graduates from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR)  the group with an average age of 27 is already proving to be the leader among the youth in agribusiness. AGCOM supported the group with matching grants amounting to MWK139 million ($184,000). The cooperative was able to contribute or match with their own resources amounting to MWK59.6 million ($79,000). Just in the first year of operation, their production (soybean seeds/grain and beans) improved from 104.6 to 468 metric tons, sales volume increased by 176% and is projected to increase by 492% in the second year. In the third year, sales are projected to double with the improved irrigation system and storage and solar-powered water plant supported through AGCOM. A partnership with off takers is guaranteed, thereby securing markets for the commodities produced. Already, more than 3,000 farmers have benefited through jobs.

Four key emerging lessons have surfaced as women and youth engage in Productive Alliances, which offers hope for increased agricultural commercialization and job creation.

  • Peer learning strengthens cohesion and trust among the members because many of them face same challenges.
  • Where land tenure has been secured, women and youth demonstrate strong desire to invest more in the land to improve their farming business. Further ancillary support towards last mile infrastructure, market access facilitation provides a good enabling environment to improved agribusiness and livelihoods.
  • Women and youth are not too poor to invest. Through provision of matching grants, the groups accessed 70% of their business resources, while the gap was contributed by themselves, leading into increased ownership and sustainability. Further opportunities through partial credit guarantee has promoted access to finance from commercial banks to some producer organizations, thereby boosting their farming businesses further.
  • Guaranteed market through the off-takers creates strong impetus to increase production, while also creating a bargaining platform for increased sales, fair pricing and increased market-oriented.

The Productive Alliances model has proven that women and youth can be catalysts to improve agricultural productivity, income generation and job creation. For this to be achieved, technical and financial assistance is needed to improve their productive capacity, including leadership while strengthening partnerships with off takers. This would translate further to increasing agricultural growth, closing the gender gaps and lift people out of poverty. It’s time to rethink of youth as leaders of today and break the gender barriers to increase agricultural growth, reduce poverty and create the much-needed jobs in the agricultural sector.


Blessings Botha

Senior Agriculture Economist

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