At one technical cooperation farm in Malawi the usual donor-recipient relationship was turned on its head when Chinese agricultural experts found something to learn from the farm’s management. A blank slate approach towards the project site can undervalue the efficiency of the project, as has been shown in this case.
Enock Mthepheya, farm manager at the state-run Malawi-China Agricultural Technical Cooperation Farm about 15km west of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, recounts that when a crop of maize was planted one winter, he and his colleagues warned the Chinese team of eight experts that it wouldn’t work.
He explains: “The cereal crop seed that they brought in from China did not match our local weather and soil conditions. We advised the experts about its survival here and when the variety failed they admitted it was wrong and in the end, they agreed with us.”
“When they came here they realized that Malawi was already good in the area of cereal production. While we need experts’ assistance at the farm, not all of the expertise that they bring is needed,” he says.
A Relationship of Mutual Learning Developed
There are two remaining experts who aren’t working at the farm anymore as they wait to join the other six who have returned home after their term has expired. The replacement team of eight is expected during the next phase which runs to 2022.
Mthepheya says that during their term at the farm, the visiting team and the Malawian staff had evolved a relationship in which they’re learning from each other.
The technical bilateral agreement under which these experts are stationed in Malawi, entails that Malawi tries out new varieties being developed in China. The agreement is “a win-win situation” for both parties, according to a government official interviewed for this article.
There are over 40 crops grown at the farm including tomatoes, cucumbers, bananas, corn, soya beans, macadamia, pitches, mangoes, paw paws, cassava, beans and sweet potatoes. According to Mthepheya, three quarters of these varieties are imported from China, with which he says he has no problem. These varieties that are grown at the farm are sold to farmers and to consumers, both local and Chinese in Malawi.
“We make a lot more money with the imported varieties than with the local ones,” he says.
Locally-Preferred Irrigation Option Replaced by Chinese Canal System
The Chinese have also constructed irrigation canals and brought in a 35 horsepower pump. They constructed three greenhouses, classroom blocks, a hostel, offices, laboratory and humidity chambers. China has since 2014 pumped over US$1.2 million into the farm.
Before the Chinese involvement at the farm, a drip irrigation system was installed by Israeli agricultural exports, notes Mthepheya, who has been at the farm for eight years. (It is unclear why a government spokesperson flatly denied this point in an interview about the Malawi-China Agricultural Technical Cooperation Farm.)
This system, however, did not meet with the approval of the Chinese team.
“What I know is that when the Chinese came they said they were not in support of the drip irrigation and opted for the construction of the canals where we are pumping water from the river up to the farm,” he says.
He adds that the drip irrigation system is one of the best systems they have at the farm. “One of its advantages is that water is not wasted. The system is simple to operate.”
Twenty four tanks were installed on the farm for this system and 48 plots of 500 square metres each are being irrigated using drip irrigation.
On the other hand, he points out, the canal irrigation is expensive because it uses power to pump water from the river to the farm. It is not as sustainable when compared to the drip irrigation because the drip lines that have been installed from China are not durable.
“In comparison I would opt for the drip irrigation,” he says.
Activities Wind Down Due to COVID-19 and Funding Cuts
So far an estimated 130 established farmers and 1,200 students have been trained at the farm, according to Mthepheya, but he points out their mandate doesn’t extend to the provision of startup capital.
Recently the project has laid off 24 Malawian employees who were paid for with funding from the Chinese government, which was cut. The Government of Malawi could not afford to continue paying for their services due to lack of funding.
“Currently government is only paying for sixteen staff members. I do not even know if in future we may have an increase of staff,” he says.
The third phase of the project was supposed to start in 2019 up to 2022 with the extension of the farm by 5 ha so that it covers 9ha of land, but for the moment this has been halted. All training courses have also ceased for the moment.
Avoid the Blank Slate Approach
Two lessons can be taken from this project.
The first is not to underestimate the level of local technical expertise. To the credit of the Chinese experts, they were able to recognize the applicability of local knowledge.
The second is the tendency to approach the project site in the recipient country as a blank slate, thereby overriding existing infrastructure. This leads to inefficiencies and obsolescence.
Raphael Mweninguwe is a freelance journalist with over 15 years of journalism experience. He holds a Diploma in Printing Engineering Technology from The Malawi Polytechnic, a postgraduate Certificate in Media Studies from the University of Oslo, and an MA in Diplomacy and International Relations from Africa University of Diplomacy, Counseling and International Relations.