Malawi is an agro-based economy, with women representing 70 percent of the labour force in the agriculture sector, according to the latest UNFPA report.
There is also a 28% gender gap in agricultural productivity as women farmers have less access to inputs, credit and extension than men.
This subjects women farmers to exploitation and struggle to make ends meet, especially female headed households.
But 29 year old Dailesi Maitala of Mgalanyumbu village in Dedza district has defied all odds in her Irish potato farming which she ventured in, three years ago.
Maitala, a farmer under Kanyama potato cooperative, is now earning less from her iron potato farming because of effects of climate change, low prices and transportation issues.
“I used to earn K500, 000 approximately $500 from a hectare of my potato farm which helped me to build a modern house with iron sheets. Potato business used to be profitable in the past years,” says Maitala who is married and has three children.
The irrigation scheme constructed under the Rural Livelihoods and Economic Empowerment Programme-RLEEP in her area, some years ago is now rendered useless, as the main source of water is drying up due to the effects climate change.
“With irrigation farming, I used to harvest potatoes three times a year and maximise profits. This time, we rely on the rains and manual watering of the plants from a small stream. The only solution to this situation is solar pumps, but we cannot afford to buy them,” Maitala adds.
She also complains about poor road networks as she fails to transport her produce to Dedza town, a distance of over 100 kilometres from her base. The dusty-earth road and bridges are in a dilapidated state.
There is no proper public transport therefore farmers are exploited by vendors who make an effort to travel to the hard to reach area and buy the produce from their gardens, but offer poor prices citing transport hustles.
But besides this, farmers like Maitala face another challenge of finding the much sought after variety, Red Rosetta. There are various varieties of Irish potatoes but the demand on the market is now for Red Rosetta which is not commonly found.
She explains “In our cooperative, we sometimes supply potatoes to some hospitality sectors which offer better prices. But now the setback is that they are looking for Red Rosetta variety which most farmers do not have here.”
She now banks her hopes on the Transforming Agriculture through Diversification and Entrepreneurship (TRADE) programme, which aims to boost agri-business ventures for rural farmers.
This is a government run project under the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to the tune of $70 million.
It is implemented in Chitipa, Karonga, Rumphi, Nkhatabay, Ntchisi, Kasungu, Mchinji, Lilongwe, Dedza, Blantyre and Thyolo districts.
Knowledge and Communications Specialist for TRADE Programme Oscar Roy Ulili says the program targets to support farmers like Maitala, with grants as well as improving road networks to facilitate smooth transportation of their produce to markets.
“Under the TRADE program we are implementing agricultural commercialisation innovation fund to support farmer based organisations and groups. We want to involve farmers in value addition so that their products fetch better prices as well as improving infrastructure in the rural areas.
“In total 300 thousand rural farming households are set to benefit from the program, out of which 127 thousand households will be direct beneficiaries and 173 thousand households as indirect beneficiaries through construction of roads and bridges” Ulili explains.
Ulili acknowledges that the agriculture sector is affected by climatic shocks and the program is designed to promote environmental management and climate smart agriculture to cushion farmers from effects of climate change.
This programme compliments the government agenda of creating wealth among the citizenry and Malawi becoming a self reliant and developed nation by the year 2063.
Development analysts say Malawi cannot realise significant economic growth if the gap between the rich and poor remain wide and the rural masses especially commercial farmers are side-lined.