Machinga — The 2018 Malawi Population and Housing CensusReport indicates that out of 6.6 million economically active people in Malawi, 3.3 million are women.
Surely, Margret Anafi and 12 other members of Chidothi 1 Women Group, under Group Village Head Mdele in Traditional Authority Nkula in Machinga, are among the few productive women in the country.
Located about 15 kilometres from Chingale Turn-off on the Liwonde-Zomba Road, an all-women member grouping is into aquaculture, raising fish in a pond.
These brave women are putting into practice the 'gospel' according to National Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy: promoting gender equality in the small-scale fishing communities for the improvement of livelihoods and socio-economic sustainability.
The entity was established in 1996 under the banner of Chidothi Home Economics Women Group popularly known in those old good days as Mkomya wa pa Banja, says Anafi, the group's secretary.
After being subjected to name-calling, mockery and other insults, today, Anafi is a proud member of the group which has inspired others such as Chidothi 2 and Chiyambi women groups.
The coming in of African Development Bank (AfDB) with a project to economically empower village-based groupings marks the genesis of Chidothi 1 Women Group.
"We asked for support from the AfDB for fish farming. We had enough and favourable land to venture into fish production," explains Anafi, mother of four children.
In 1999, Anafi says, the group sourced a soft loan of K50, 000 from AfDB which they spent on construction of their first-ever 20 by 20 metres pond.
She acknowledges the role Village Head Chidothi played in providing the group with a virgin piece of land for free.
"Luckily, National Aquaculture Centre gave us 2,000 fingerlings for free," she says.
Four years later, eight other ponds of equal size as the first one were constructed.
However, Anafi confesses that the money realised from the ponds could not cater for all the needs of group members.
"After selling all the fish from all the ponds, we only realised less than K50, 000.00. Some members were very discouraged and wanted to quit," she says.
Fortunately, in 2015, government through Agriculture Sector Wide Approach Programme (ASWAP) became another Samaritan and rescued the group from disbandment.
"We followed advice from ASWAP to amalgamate four ponds into one. We then had two ponds of 45 metres wide, 49 metres long and 1.7 metres deep," Anafi explains.
The rescuer, ASWAP, apart from giving out 6,000 fingerlings, provided fish feeds and trained members on feed production.
In August 2016, the group celebrated for earning over K800, 000.00 from the fish sales at K2, 500.00 per kilogramme.
The economically empowered women shared the money among members and invested some as start-up capital for Chidothi 1 Village Savings and Loans (VSL) group.
Anafi says malnutrition cases in the area have gone down because people are now eating nutritious fish raised by the grouping.
In every 100 people in Machinga, 39 are said to be malnourished, according to the District Social Economic Profile of 2017-2022.
Regardless of the achievement, the women recognise the role of men in whatever they do.
Anafi's husband Batani Nkula testifies that the socio-economic status of his family has greatly improved since his wife joined the grouping.
"We always discuss as a family and agree on what to do with the money. It doesn't matter who has sourced the money. What matters to us is to reach a consensus on any income in the house," Nkula says.
Through fish farming, the couple has constructed a house, bought four taxi bicycles and a motorbike.
Little wonder Nkula feels good every time his wife leaves home early in the morning to take care of fish in the ponds, some four kilometres away from the house.
Village Head Chidothi is equally satisfied with the benefits fish farming has brought to her area
"Youngman, I am a star among my fellow village leaders because of these women. I don't regret giving them the land," says the grey-haired village head with a masculine voice.
Machinga Women Forum (MAWOF) chairperson Beatrice Chisuse describes Chidothi Women Group as a model to other women in the district.
"From a very humble beginning, the women have really proved that given opportunity women can also perform wonders," Chisuse says.
Chisuse whose organisation, MAWOF, was established in 2008 with the aim of improving the welfare of women holistically, blames some cultural and religious beliefs for discouraging women to take part in economic activities.
"MAWOF has empowered 500,000 women and 200,000 girls through VSL activities and has supported over 200,000 women whose rights were at the verge of being violated with different human rights services.
"We have also paid school fees to 100 vulnerable girls; 10,000 people have received justice and over 200,000 are aware of their human rights and responsibilities through our interventions," she says
Chisuse, however, asks government and other development partners to support women groups in finding markets for their products and in capacity building.
Coincidentally, late last year, when Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, Mary Navicha visited Machinga, she hinted on the need for women to be economically empowered.
"Most women are denied a chance to take part in economic activities because they lack start-up capital," Navicha said.
She, however, assured women that government remains committed to train women in value addition and identification of viable markets for their products.
Machinga District Council Fisheries Officer Elliot Lungu pegs the value of the district's fish at K74.1 million per year.
Lungu says the district has been experiencing an annual mushrooming of fish production of eight per cent since 2016.
"We have 316 fish ponds that are being managed by 168 fish farmers on 5,462 hectares of land, translating into 54,627.8 square metres of land under fish pond farming."
He says most ponds are owned by women, noting that out of 282 fish clubs, 179 are dominated by women farmers.
"About 4,000 people are directly engaged in fishing as gear owners and crew while more than 5,000 people work in fish processing, transportation and marketing," Lungu says.
But the rosy picture of fish industry in Machinga is attributed to good partnership between the council through programmes such as ASWAP and Malawi Social Action Fund (MASAF).
Lungu says the presence of several irrigation schemes, suitable soil for construction of fish ponds coupled with two water bodies of Lake Chiuta and Shire River offer an opportunity for further growth of fish farming.
"Low water levels, capacity for the fish farmers particularly in the areas of pond management and marketing; and availability of inputs like fingerlings and feeds, pose a challenge in as far as the growth of the industry is concerned," he says, however.