Coffee and Change- visiting Mwansambe Coffee Co-operative

After visiting the dairy co-op, Sarah and Amanda traveled much further south to visit Mwansambe Coffee Co-operative. Whilst there they spoke to farmers about the leadership training they’d received from the college and how it had helped them and their business.

On the journey there we skirted the border with Mozambique where one side of the road was in Malawi, the other in the neighbouring country. There wasn’t any difference to speak of, except for the tell-tale Portuguese shop names such as the ‘Obrigado Café’, and the huge HGVs queuing at the border crossing. John showed me some of the warehouses where grain had had to be stored during the Mozambique civil war 20 years ago to feed the 1.5 million refugees that Malawi had taken in and housed in camps. He said that this had had a massive impact on Malawi and put an enormous amount of pressure on their economy at the time.

The co-operative itself is in a fairly remote area, you have to leave the tarmac and travel 25kms on a bumpy dusty track to reach their central meeting point. On arrival we met with Niffa Chumachiyenda, the chairperson of the co-operative, John saying that her surname very fittingly translates as ‘worth the travels’. We went to have a look at a nearby plot to look at the coffee plants and to discuss some of the issues that the farmers were facing. This particular couple were quite elderly and so they struggled with the work, and this year in particular had been very dry which meant that the coffee plants had begun to wilt early and lose a lot of leaves. They said that as the soil was sandy it didn’t retain the water and so were asking for advice on soil improvement. We talked about compost making and introducing organic matter in to the soil, I asked them if they made compost with their food waste such as banana peels and they said they just throw them away, so we talked about building a compost heap and adding leaves and other plant waste to break down and improve the soil structure. Between each row of coffee plants they had dug pits ready to plant banana trees so as to cast shade and lessen the impact of the sun of the coffee plants.

Once this visit was over and more members had arrived ,we went into the shade of the village church to have our meeting. The co-operative was registered in 2015 and now has 300 members, 229 of which are women. Before registering they had received a visit from the CEPEESM project and realised that they would be able to generate better profits if they formed a co-operative. Since then they have received training on organic manure-making, liquid manure, leadership and governance, which they said was very important for them to understand the difference between leadership styles, distinguishing between dictatorship and democracy. They also learned about business management, saying that this really opened their eyes to how they can better run their business, as previously as farmers they were just growing things without thinking about what was wasted and what they were getting in return, so it was impossible t know if they were making a profit.

I asked what had been the most important aspect of their training that the college had delivered and they unanimously agreed that it was the leadership training. They felt this had been the most helpful as it had greatly improved the working relationships between the co-operative leaders. When I asked what they felt they needed more support with, it was in value addition. This wasn’t just for their coffee though,as they also produce other crops such as soya, groundnuts, ginger and lemongrass. They said that even simple groundnut processing equipment would be a great help as well as trying to achieve some certification for their status as organic growers. They realise that this could potentially add great value to their crops, coupled with basic processing so that they are not merely selling their produce in its low-value raw form. John suggested they may be able to diversify into macadamia nut production as this was a very high value perennial product that they would be able to plant between the coffee plants to give shade.

We also discussed compost toilets and using the compost to improve the soil and use as fertiliser. At first they didn’t seem keen on this idea, but John explained how the system works and used the example of Annie’s toilet, saying that even I had used it. I talked about how I had seen different types of compost toilets in use and that they could also build a structure using local materials so that they didn’t need to invest in a brick and cement building. John said that he could send them some information to look into and consider the different options for themselves.

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