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Solar Refrigeration: Chilling tomatoes to win markets in Malawi

By Practical Action On 30.11.2022 EnergyFarmingTechnologyBlog

In northern Malawi, a combination of modern farming technologies and well-organized farming groups has significantly reduced the number of hours women spend on the farm and increased their annual income.

To address the need for energy in rural agriculture systems, Practical Action teamed up with Modern Farming Technologies (MFT) – a social enterprise based in Malawi that works primarily with women farmers.  They wanted to work with local farmers to demonstrate that solar irrigation technology and controlled environment agriculture can enable farms to produce all year round and be less vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather.

At the heart of the work they do, Atusaye Kayuni and the larger team at MFT demonstrate that farming can be more productive and a way out of poverty.

“Nkhata Bay is considered to be one of the most challenging locations to farm due to high temperatures” says Atusaye, the director at MFT. “People’s attitudes to farming is different, which is why we chose to work here, a location that would allow us to make a bigger impact and help residents change their perspectives on agriculture.”

Old shipping containers have been converted into solar powered refrigerators

Old shipping containers have been converted into solar powered refrigerators

Funded by the PREO Fund (Powering Renewable Energy Opportunities) the first two greenhouses were assembled in September 2021 with a handful of farmers, all new to the concept of farming in a greenhouse. The women assemble themselves into cooperative groups which they jointly manage. Staff at MFT train the women in their respective groups and guide them through the business model and the rent-to-own scheme which enables the women to pay-back progressively and eventually own the solar irrigation unit and the greenhouse in under 4 years.

Prisca and Victoria who now manage the sale of produce at MFT, started out by helping farmers enlist onto the project. Prisca explains; “Having never worked in groups, we conducted trainings for the women, taught them how to manage group dynamics, how to use irrigation equipment and how to farm in greenhouses. The waiting process before our first few harvests tested their patience. It wasn’t until production levels increased that more and more farmers began organizing themselves into groups and the numbers have been growing since.”

By the end of 2021, after two harvests, the number grew to a total of 90 women. In their groups the women have collectively managed the operations and oversight of 7 harvest phases in under 1 year. With our co-developed business model, the women cooperatives understand why working together is crucial. A solar chill plant is used to preserve the produce harvested by chilling the tomatoes to increase their shelf life. This has played a crucial role in reducing post-harvest loss.

Victoria, who manages sales for MFT described the buyer’s experience: “Part of the reason why our customers buy our produce is because it is high quality, and the shelf life is good. We sell to shops, hotels, restaurants, the larger community, and the number of farmers’ markets we supply within the region is also growing. We’re currently supplying between 100kg to 1000kg of tomatoes to our customers and we anticipate that the market demand will grow. We’re finally distributing to Shoprite, who would previously source their produce from South Africa. Local farmers have also become interested in tomato farming, which has led to an increase in the local supply chain, but the demand for what we harvest is still high, and we believe this is because our quality is also very high.”

New sales techniques and access to markets has allowed women farmers to earn far more income

New sales techniques and access to markets has allowed women farmers to earn far more income

In managing sales, both Prisca and Victoria said one of the unique features of the business model is that they can help manage the supply-chain of produce to markets that the farmers wouldn’t ordinarily access. “If the women were left on their own, they wouldn’t be able to convince larger retailers and other buyers such as hotels and restaurants to buy their produce because most of the women have never dealt with contracts and negotiated with companies.” Currently, MFT are better placed to negotiate with large retailers and sign contracts on behalf of the women’s groups, making sure that they supply their produce at a competitive market price. In the long run, we’re gradually working to empower women’s groups so that they can deal directly with buyers, a process Practical Action has decades of experience with.

Having grown in her own capacity as a sales expert, Prisca Gama left us with these final words:

“It has been an incredible journey working on this project. We have overcome so many challenges, starting with convincing the women to assemble in cooperatives and later establishing 45 greenhouses. We have all gained experience in growing and supplying quality crops together. Securing contracts with companies and expanding distribution has been the highlight of my experience, as a young woman and entrepreneur.

Chatola Mwenda, Ester Chipitika, Maggie Chiumia and Gloria Chigezero

Chatola Mwenda, Ester Chipitika, Maggie Chiumia and Gloria Chigezero

“It’s been very fulfilling to negotiate with retailers and companies, agree on a competitive market price, secure longer-term contracts, and win markets. It feels good to win markets.”

For an overview of the project read here.