Bettie Kawonga says business incubators for diary farmers can provide livelihoods for young people in Malawi, and the World Food Prize agrees
Bettie Kawonga, a 31-year-old lecturer and entrepreneur from Malawi, recently won a $150,000 prize for her idea to encourage underemployed young people to become dairy farmers. Her concept is to create business incubation centres that will help young people to become successful dairy entrepreneurs – simultaneously tackling two problems that blight Malawi: high unemployment and low agricultural productivity.
The prize was given by Howard G Buffett Foundation, Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative, and the World Food Prize foundation and is intended support 40 Chances Fellows to launch social enterprises that address hunger and poverty in Africa. The money will go far in Malawi, but Kawonga says there is still a long road to travel before her dream can be realised.
Malawi’s smallholder farmers work tiny plots they hold through customary land tenure. They don’t have access to simple technologies that can improve productivity and rely on family members for labour, making them extremely vulnerable to shocks such as failed rains or sickness in the family. As a result, rural communities, 90% of whom are reliant on agriculture for their livelihoods, face food insecurity, chronic malnutrition, consistently low income and high seasonal unemployment.
Smallholder dairy farming is a good solution to these problems, Kawonga says, because it provides year-round income, whereas crop farming employment is seasonal. It also contributes to nutrition security as well as poverty reduction because of milk’s higher nutritional and economic value.
When the first of Kawonga’s incubation centres open in Lilongwe in 2016, it will equip young people with leadership and technical skills in dairy husbandry, agribusiness management, loans and savings, and business proposal writing. Youth will be matched with business mentors and provided with start-up funds from an endowment to be created using a portion of the award money.
But do young Malawians want to be farmers? Kawonga refutes the suggestion that it might be hard to attract people to her incubation centres. She cites examples from Kenyawhere young people are returning to rural areas after their dreams of success in the city fail and they realise that there is money to be made in agriculture. “The youth are willing if we provide what they are looking for: skills, credit and the promise of a regular income and a good life.”
Her idea remains untested and measuring the impact of these centres on unemployment be a challenge, after all, most startups of all types fail after the first year. While it will be easy enough to say that the centres provided credit to help a young person get started in smallholder dairy farming, it will be a while before Kawonga can claim to have created sustainable employment as well as delivered on the other key indicators: improvements in nutrition, food security and job creation.
Still Kawonga is excited about the future. “We have been very conscious [that this is unchartered territory]. That’s why we are not launching centres in the whole country straight away. We want to see how the project fares first then roll it out from the centre region to the south, and then to the rest of Malawi. Our target for the first year is to reach 240 young people and I’m excited that these young people who are now idle will be engaged in agriculture – the engine of our economy.”
Despite her enthusiasm and drive, it seems policy and nature are not quite on Kawonga’s side. In 2014 the government introduced a 3% tax on milk which is said to be “choking the dairy industry” and she expresses sadness at the news ofsevere flooding across the southern half of Malawi over the past week. “When I heard from my relatives about floods my heart sank. I am still struggling to imagine what life is like for agricultural families in the flood hit areas: the disruption of livelihoods and the hunger (fuelling the vicious cycle of food insecurity), children who will fail to go to school because the classrooms would have been turned into shelters, health issues, the list go on and on.”
But when I ask what she is planning to do about the government levies that might act as a disincentive for smallholder dairy farming, Kawonga is defiant: “We started engaging government at the lowest levels – district offices and then the ministry. If we keep pushing in parliament, one day they will take [dairy farming] up for discussion because they also serve the people we are serving. I know the battle will be won one day.”–Source: The GuardianFollow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :