Balancing production, prices in Malawi sunflower sector

A 48-year-old Wiseman Phiri vividly recalls his past as a sunflower farmer. It is a memory that swings from a rosy tale to a nightmare within a flash of a second.

Alice Malika, displaying her sunflower yield. Pic. Courtesy of MOS
Alice Malika, displaying her sunflower yield. Pic. Courtesy of MOS
A sample of a healthy sunflower yield one can get through following proper procedures outlined in the Sunflower production DVD. Pic by Mac Neil Kalowekamo.
A sample of a healthy sunflower yield one can get through following proper procedures outlined in the Sunflower production DVD. Pic by Mac Neil Kalowekamo.

More than two decades ago, Sunflower – a crop with large golden flowers grown for its edible seeds which yield oil – was in high demand. The Sunflower sector in Malawi was booming.

For Phiri, as a smallholder farmer he was within reach of making a fortune. He had produced a lot of sunflower from his farm in Chitipi, Lilongwe. But fate scratched its ugly finger on market prices.

“Prices fell as low as one kwacha from around six and seven kwacha per kilogram,” Phiri says with echoes of his past anger still ringing loudly in his ears.

He recalls: “For all the toiling one went through in producing the crop, the rewards you got were always these insulting prices.”

He adds that more painful was the reality that other players in the seed oil sector like transporters, processors and retailers raked in a lot of money at the expense of farmers.

This is a familiar and perennial story of exploitation that has often symbolised the life of a farmer in most agricultural sectors. The picture of a smallholder tobacco farmer looms large in this narrative.

But while the tobacco industry has thrived at the expense of this poor farmer, the oilseed sector has often wobbled for survival specifically in accessing volumes of sunflower as a raw material.

Since early 90s, production of sunflower has been decreasing due to lack of markets for farmers. The acquisition of the raw material from outside the country by the sole major processor, Unilever, literally killed the sunflower sector.

“Seed companies, that were even few that time, stopped supplying the market with planting seed. This discouraged many farmers,” recalls Towera Jalakasi who was then working for National Seed Oil Division.

Now as part of a team promoting the growth of the oilseed industry in the country, Jalakasi believes that sunflower can regain its status as another foreign exchange earner.

Over the years, there has been significant growth in the oil processing industry. The country now boasts of four big oil processors.

The advent of One Village One Product (OVOP) and other civil society supported programmes have spawned several small community-based oil processors.

This growing list of oil processors is expanding the oilseed sector. This also means an increase in the demand for sunflower, groundnuts, soybean and cotton seeds as raw materials for processing cooking oil.

Foreign exchange challenges on the international market have also factored in largely as part of this equation of increased demand for locally produced raw materials.

“Many oil processors are unable to import crude oil. With their large investment in machinery requiring more feedstock, they have to buy locally if they are to operate economically,” says Jalakasi, who is now Interventions Manager for Malawi Oilseed Sector Transformation (MOST).

Despite the increased demand of sunflower at local and international markets, the national production levels are still less inspiring.

Available statistics show that the Malawi’s processor annual demand for sunflower seed hovers around 30-40,000 metric tonnes (mT).

But the country only manages to produce an average of 11,000 mT per year. MOST attributes these low production levels to poor farm practices and a shortage of farmers engaged in sunflower production.

The exact figure of current sunflower farmers can hardly be determined. But surely it is way below what the sector currently requires to respond to the unmet demand.

According to MOST, the sector requires more than 83,000 smallholder farmers if existing ones do not expand their production.

MOST—a programme supported by the Department for International Development (DfID)—is engaged in a number of interventions to boost the quantity and quality of sunflower seeds.

They include ensuring availability of improved sunflower seed varieties as well as establishment and promotion of sustainable sunflower oil processing models.

The programme has already lured a number of people into growing sunflower through coordination in easy access to quality seeds for planting and selling markets after harvest.

59-year-old Alice Malika is one of them. She resides in Lilongwe but has a farm in Nkhotakota. She started growing sunflower in February last year. Unfortunately the first yield was below her expectation.

“Most sunflower seeds were too dry because of the hot weather in Nkhotakota. It became difficult to harvest them since they stuck hard to the flower,” Malika says.

Recently, she told a gathering of oilseed experts in Lilongwe that lack of information on how to grow the crop was stifling her efforts to produce high quality sunflower and adding value to it.

Apparently, her problem mirrors the general situation of sunflower farmers in the country.  And it is this problem that prompted MOST to produce a DVD on sunflower production and post-harvest management.

“The video provides information to enhance production of good quality seed. It also serves as an alternative in an era of shrinking number of physically available extension workers,” says Jalakasi.

This initiative is likely to attract many into trying their luck in sunflower production. But old habits die hard. Much as demand of sunflower is on the increase, prices remain unattractive most of the times.

Malika is still keeping last year’s yield amounting to 1900 kilograms (kgs). She awaits an improvement in market prices to sell the yield, which is equivalent to 38 bags weighing 50kg each.

It is clear that the same low prices that forced out Wiseman Phiri and many others 20 years ago are still dogging the current farmer. That offers little hope for success in efforts towards improving sunflower production.

Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Minister Dr. Allan Chiyembekeza says initiatives to improve the oilseed sector have always been there but they have fallen short of benefiting the poor farmer.

During an interview on the sidelines of the sunflower production DVD launch in Lilongwe recently, the minister issued a clear warning if the status quo in the market environment remains the same.

“The sunflower sector is bound to go in circles if it continues to offer low prices to farmers,” Chiyembekeza said.

It is only by balancing production demand with fair prices in markets that the country can see a significant and stable growth in the sunflower sector in particular and the oilseed sector in general.-Mana

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