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Chinese Technology and Financing Gives a Boost to Malawi’s Small-Scale Cotton Farmers

Image by Jim Black from Pixabay

John Chikwenga, 44, of Mululu village in Balaka district in eastern Malawi thought his eyes were deceiving him when he saw his prize: a brand new tractor. He had suffered years of backache and sore muscles from tilling his fields with a hoe.

Today, such frustrating experiences are water under the bridge.

Chikwenga is now a proud cotton farmer. He no longer needs a hoe to till his land, thanks to a competition held by the Malawi Cotton Company Limited (MCCL), a multi-million company jointly owned by China and Malawi.

The same grace that befell Chikwenga has also inspired many other smallholder farmers in Malawi to venture back into cotton farming after years of downward trends in the national cotton industry. “It was very challenging to produce enough cotton using our traditional means of a hand and hoe,” reflected Chikwenga.

Another beneficiary, Freson Macheka, from Mulandula village in the same district won a plow. The 33-year old Macheka concurs with Chikwenga, saying the establishment of MCCL has raised the standard of living among a number of smallholder farmers.

”Now our group has grown from 8 members to 18 after our friends saw the progress we made by working with MCCL,” explained Macheka.

Although the Cotton Business Show Promise, There’s Still a Long Way to Go

Although the government sees cotton as one of the country’s top crops under the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MDGS) and the Agricultural Sector Wide Approach (ASWAP), the sector has, at least so far, not yielded the desired results.

A study by the African Institute of Corporate Citizenship, a South Africa-based non-governmental organization mandated to promote the role of business in building sustainable communities, showed that cotton production levels declined from 1,000,000 metric tons in 2011/12 to less than 100,000 metric tons in 2016 and 2017.

This was a result of expensive and inaccessible inputs, low levels of research, a lack of financing, and insufficient farm machinery among other challenges.

The poor performance of the cotton sector stirred the late President of Malawi, Professor Bingu Wa Mutharika, to fly to Beijing in 2008 to meet with the then President of China, Hu Jintao, to facilitate Chinese investment in Malawi’s cotton industry as a way of revamping the ailing sector.

His initiative led to the establishment of the Malawi Cotton Company Limited in 2009. MCCL was registered in Hong Kong by China-Africa Cotton Development Limited under a $64.72 million project.

MCCL Becomes a Big Player in the Market

Situated in Balaka district, MCCL aimed to employ about 1,500 Malawians and inject about $36 million into Malawi’s economy per year, according to the Chairperson of Africa Textile Ju Wenbin who attended its launch.

MCCL specialises in buying and ginning cotton, and boosts this business by providing the local farmers with loans, competitions, training, and new technology.

According to MCCL spokesperson, Macdonald Mhango, the company worked with 180,000 cotton farmers during the 2019-2020 season. These farmers were drawn from the districts of Salima, Dowa, Ntchisi, Nkhotakota, Mangochi, Balaka Chikhwawa, and Nsanje.

“For the past few years,” said Mhango, “we have been involving farmers from six Cotton growing Agriculture Development Divisions (ADDs). This season we added two more ADDs. It is an indication that farmers are venturing into the cotton sector.”

Cotton is now cultivated by over 300,000 smallholder farmers and is a reliable asset to rural communities, generating about $26.5 million annually.

Mhango attributes the increase of cotton growers to the benefits which the growers are gaining through their working relationship with MCCL.

High Taxes Make it More Difficult for the Sector to Grow

He stressed that there are Chinese experts that are training farmers in new technologies and the initiative is helping them to improve the quality and quantity of their crop.

Mhango added that MCCL has set up well-structured markets for cotton farmers to sell their produce within reach.

However, he cautioned that high taxes on cotton production is a constraint on further production.

Although he praises the Malawi government for formulating policies protecting the cotton industry, which which encourages investment, he suggests that the government should lower cotton taxes and reduce import duties on necessary components like sacks, fertilizers, pesticides, and machine components to reduce operational cost for cotton ginners.

In response, the Ministry of Agriculture commends MCCL’s efforts in providing machinery and other incentives aimed at boosting cotton sector.

 “The government is looking forward to the continued Chinese commitment towards the agricultural sector. The boost in the cotton sector is much appreciated and has greatly improved cotton production and uplifted cotton farmer’s livelihoods in the country,” said Priscilla Mateyu, a ministry spokesperson.

Mateyu adds that MCCL has helped promote new technologies in the cotton sector in line with government policies and also promotes new seed varieties.

Maybe One Day Cotton Will Replace Tobacco in Malawi

Thanks to the collaboration with the Chinese government, Malawi has managed to increase the number of cotton farmers that produce both seed cotton and lint by allocating $1.3 million through the Cotton Council of Malawi (CCM) to benefit 32,000 cotton farmers. It is expected that this 2019-2020 growing season, about 40,000 metric tons of cotton will be bought by ginners.

Meanwhile, MCCL has started a seed multiplication project to enhance the availability of cotton seed availability and yielding varieties to benefit farmers and boost production.

There is still hope that just as the lives of two local farmers, Freson Macheka and John Chikwemga were transformed because of the China-Malawi cotton venture, many more farmers will help to resurrect a sector which one day is expected to replace tobacco.

Mphatso Katona is a freelance journalist based in Malawi.

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