By Steven Godfrey Mkweteza

Maria Khisimisi rose early, shouldered her hoe uncomplainingly, and set off to begin a backbreaking morning’s work hoeing a 21- hectare piece of customary land.

Later that afternoon, back home with a load of firewood on the head, Khisimisi, served up steaming slabs of msima to her family and other chores. This is a daily routine for the 37 year old Mayi Khisimisi, as she is fondly known in her Nthukuso village in T/A Malemia in Nsanje district.

However, if you take a glace look at the hardworking Khisimisi, you will be tempted to think she is just a mere beggar in town. But, as a matter of fact, she is not. In fact, Khisimisi is a farmer who joined the full-time smallholder farming fray decades ago.

She, despite toiling for years, breaking her back in the scotching weather and all her investments in farming, the visibly dejected Khisimisi is still among the largest population of Malawian women smallholder farmers who are basking in the sun of abject poverty. Her house is a thorn in the eye to look at it twice, her children dropped out of school long time ago due to school fees and her feet are dirty not just from farming but also treading on rough grounds while uncovered.

“I have been a farmer for twenty years now, but I cannot achieve my dreams of scoffing at poverty through successful farming. I don’t see my life changing,” Khisimisi, a divorcee with five children narrates, almost breaking into a sob.

She adds: “The money I get from selling my farm produce is not enough to meet the basic needs of my family. But there is a lot I want to do but I cannot. I want to build a better house, start a big business and send my children to good schools. But the proceeds from farming are too little to meet these needs.”

Khisimisi cited poor extension services, access to transport, limited and reliable market linkages, finance and inadequate farmland to expand production as some of the notable barriers to her successful farming.

In fact, Khisimisi’s complaints are very common among farmers across Malawi. Khisimisi is but just a typical example of how agriculture, being it livestock or crop production, has been a nightmare for the Malawian women farming populace whom, records have it, claim that their own gold is buried in agriculture.

According to the 2010 UNDP report, farmers in Malawi generally work hard by harvesting tones of produce. But while other countries are making money out of such products through good market systems and exportation of the products, in Malawi, the same products go to waste due to lack of good markets.
Furthermore, the report says in Malawi, there are few organized systems of produce marketing. As a result, the country is losing a lot because people from other countries find it easy to come and buy the farm produce at a very low price.

For a long time, Malawian smallholder farmers have relied on the government- owned ADMARC as a reliable market for their crop produce as well as farm inputs. Of-late, however, it has been observed that ADMARC has been failing to satisfy the markets. Smallholder farmers now depend on those markets characterized by local traders.

The absence of ADMARC and reliable markets in places close to people has led to the exploitation of farmers by unscrupulous traders commonly known as ‘vendors’ who take advantage of the situation to buy at cheap and exploitative prices. They buy the crops at a rock bottom prices and resell them at a higher amount. This has left farmers like Khisimisi, dejected.

In a 2012 policy brief paper issued by the International Food Policy Research Institute {IFPRI}, poor extension services are noted as the main attribute to the poor agricultural production in the country.

According to the paper, women farmers still receive only 5 percent of all agricultural extension services. The paper noted that farmers are not improving their productivity because they are not able to access training information on the best farming techniques, new or higher-yielding crop varieties and low –input technologies, or on which crops are likely to produce most profit next season.

According to the 2011 UN women press release, “rural women constitute one- fourth of the world’s population. They account for a great proportion of the agricultural labour force, produce the majority of food grown, especially in subsistence farming, and perform most of the unpaid care work in rural areas.”

In Malawi, the importance of Agriculture cannot be overemphasized. The industry plays a vital role in the economy accounting for 85 percent of the labour force and 90 percent of foreign export earnings. In addition, agriculture contributes 35 percent of Gross Domestic Product {GDP}. Statistics further show that about 80 percent of people in Malawi depend on smallholder farming while 80 percent of the total agricultural production is done by women.

The 2010 National Statistics Office {NSO} figures indicate that in Malawi, women constitute 52 percent of the 17 plus million people. And although women’s produce 64.1 percent of country’s labor force and food needs for home consumption, according to the ministry of agriculture, they have little control over the produce and benefit less from the income earned. Of the 17 million Malawian households, 80 percent are rural. Of these, 25 percent households are headed by a woman, most of whom are impoverished.

On the other hand, the agro-based nature of the economy gives great economic importance to land tenure. However, security of tenure is not guaranteed for a majority of Malawian farmers especially women. And although women produce 80 percent of Malawian’s food, the 2011 statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development indicates that only 4 percent of the total women own land.

“This is unfair, if we are talking about a just and equitable society, then women should be able to control at least 35 percent of the land,” Shy Alli, the programs manager for umodzi organization, a non-governmental organization that works for women and girls empowerment told this reporter.
According to experts, the problems of access to land for agricultural activities for women communities have been worsened by the land grab perpetuated by multinationals and societies wealthy and, traditional norms and values.

Traditional Authority {T/A} Nkalo of chiradzulu district explains that most of the women suffering from land grabbing are those whose fathers took their wives to their home. He said in the district, they practice matrilineal system of marriage where a man goes to a wife. “If it happens vice versa then we create these problems”.

“However, in some cases a man takes his wife to his home village. In this scenario, when the husband dies his relatives easily grab his land,” he adds
He said women must know that when the husband die, they will go back to their original homes and also safeguard their parent’s farm there.
But Traditional Malemia of Nsanje district says women have themselves to blame because they are usually passive in matters of importance including agriculture.

“If a woman wants to start a large crop farm, she still has to go through her husband to contact the community leaders who are responsible for allocating land to community members. In most cases these community leaders, who are males, frustrate the women,” said Malemia during one of the media forums in Blantyre.

The patriarchal chief said men used to have big authority on land over women because it belongs mostly to men, a situation which he said disadvantage women when it comes to land administration.

“But the situation is now changing because we advocate for the equality on land issues so that woman has a control even if the man dies,” he said
In fact, UN women recognized that,” while women have equal property ownership rights in over 115 countries and have equal inheritance in over 93 countries, gender disparities in land holdings persist worldwide.

In Malawi, the programmes officer for UN women responsible for Women’s Economic Empowerment Edfas Mkandawire says Malawi’s economy is losing 1.8 percent of the GDP due to gender disparities in agriculture which he says, stands at 28 percent.

Other quarters have argued that policy implementation is one of the things government needs to champion but must be done in such a way that it benefits all farmers in the country because ADMARC alone cannot be a lasting solution to the current market shortages.

According to some other agricultural experts, government must deliberately come up with a policy on the protection of smallholder farmers from abuse by the vendors and at the same time help improve the marketing systems which could help farmers get a lot of money than is the case now
Civil Society Agriculture Network {Cisanet} Executive Director Pamela Kuwali recently told delegates to the policy advocacy forum for empowerment of women in agriculture in Lilongwe that women farmers in the country continue to face challenges such as policy limitations.

According to Kuwali, the existing policies are not gender sensitive as they deliberately exclude women stemming from cultural norms and values, among others.

“There is need for a collective effort to develop agriculture sector in the country. We cannot say we are developing agriculture when we leave out women who contribute hugely to agriculture due to factors such as culture,” she said.

On this, Kuwali said there was need for formulation of policies that will deliberately complement the newly launched agriculture Act which will help to address the challenges women face in agriculture sector.

Beatrice Makwenda, the head of policy and communications for National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi {NASFAM} claims that lack of modern agricultural practices by most farmers are depriving the farming industry of its credibility on both local and international markets.

“If they rely on their own and become resistant to change the priminitive agricultural practice then they cannot find local international reliable markets of their crops,” she argues before daring farmers to form cooperatives where they can work collectively so as to get what is due their labour.
Another aspect that Makwenda touched on was value adding of products and farm produce. She said the farm produce can help to bring in the much needed markets if they add value, that is, processed and sold as a final product.

Complementing Makwenda’s claims, chief executive officer for Malawi confederation of chamber of commerce and industry {MCCCI} chancellor Kaferapangira observed that Malawi economy can only grow if farmers get good returns from their investment. He said if farmers get good prices, they will be encouraged to grow more crops and this will in turn, boost manufacturing industries as they will have enough raw materials for their production.

Speaking during the opening of this year’s 15th national agriculture fair in Blantyre recently, the country’s president Peter Mutharika reiterated its government’s plan to establish agriculture cooperative development bank in a bid to ease challenges facing the smallholder farmers in accessing finance in order to boost their production.

But the chief executive officer {CEO} for Bankers Association of Malawi {BAM} Violet Santhe, while applauding the initiative, said the development will only be successful if smallholder farmers are first properly sensitized.

She said many people in the country do not understand bank operations, a development which she said, lead to increasing cases of defaults and liquidity problems by the banks.

Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Francis Katsaila says government will continue with its efforts of supporting the lives of local women farmers by coming up with, and upholding policies that aim at developing livelihoods and food security.

“Malawi has indeed past, witnessed policies and programmes that the government’s put in place to avert hunger and improve the livelihood of women in agriculture. Some of these have indeed not been helpful and transformative to the women farmers,” said the minister.

However, women farmers like Khisimisi can only hope that authorities will finally stop overlooking the crucial role women play in agriculture in securing a more stable future.

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