Lilongwe — Pigeon peas (Nandolo) farmers in Balaka are in fear that unreliable markets and long distances to the same may choke the progress made in the production of the crop if the challenge is not sorted out.
Since the farmers were organised into an association under Farm Input Diversification Programme (FIDP) Phase 11 in 2016 in Traditional Authority Nkaya in the district, tangible progress has been made.
Chairperson of Utale Farmers Association, Antony Majawa said in the first farming season after the farmers had just been organised into an association (2017), they produced 80 bags (of 50 kg each) of pigeon peas.
"In 2018, we produced and sold about 370 bags of Nandolo. We see this as a very big step that we have made under FIDP 11," Majawa told journalists who visited the site recently.
He said the good thing was that the legume was sold easily because they had a ready market.
Under the project, implemented by United Purpose in the district, farmers were trained in a number of areas such as how to run the association, financial management and identifying markets for their crops.
The farmers grow a number of crops under the European Union-funded project such as pigeon peas, sweet potatoes and ground nuts among others.
In addition, farmers were also provided with potato vines, trained on how to develop nurseries for sweet potatoes and how to utilise the crop as food in diversified ways.
Utale Farmers Association lead farmer, Thomas Chapondeza, said though they managed to sell their crop, especially legumes, it appeared the market was still not reliable.
"In 2015 (before the project), we sold our pigeon peas at K35 per Kg to vendors. In 2016 we sold our crop at K125 per Kg.
"From then the price went up to K500/Kg in 2017. However, it went down again to K75. Then up to K40 per Kg," explained Chapondeza, looking worried.
He said such price fluctuation and unsteady markets were a big threat to progress the farmers were making under FIDP Phase 11 in producing large crop quantities and of good quality.
Chapondeza also complained about the farmers paying a lot of money for transportation of the crop produce to the markets.
The lead farmer, therefore, asked government and its partners to identify reliable market for their crops so that they do not encounter losses due to market scarcity.
According to Chapondeza, some buyers play crookery taking advantage that no contract is usually signed between the two parties (farmers and buyers).
He insinuated that it was probably their way of ripping off farmers by buying their crop commodities cheaply.
Agribusiness Officer in the Agriculture Department in the district, Madalitso Mgombe explained that every season, his department together with farmers carry out market research to identify the same and what crop quality is required by the market.
While conceding they have not yet succeeded, he said the department was heading towards achieving good crop prices for the farmers.
"What government wants is to help farmers how to produce desirable crop quality," said Mgombe.
He further explained that government now emphasizes on contract farming to safeguard farmers' fair prices for their crops, hence training them on how to shape the same (contract farming) and set profitable prices.
Utale Farmers Association started in 2016 with about 315 farmers facilitated by FIDP Phase 11, with primary aim to find reliable market for their legume crops (especially pigeon peas) as well as sweet potatoes.
The vision of the project's implementing agency (United Purpose) in the district is to see farmers improve their livelihood economically and take farming as business.
A part from raising household income and improving nutrition among households, the project encourages farmers to discuss gender, human rights, HIV and AIDS issues, and how to end early marriages through discussion groups called Star Circles.
Under the project which is due to phase out towards the end of this year (2019), the women also conduct Village Loan and Savings (Bank Mkhonde).
FIDP Phase 11, which a Government of Malawi-initiated project, is funded by European Union, Malawi Government and Australian Aid.