Malawi’s small-scale sugarcane grower cooperative wins global sustainability award 

Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform has bestowed Malawi’s Phata Sugarcane Outgrowers Cooperative with its inaugural ‘Growing a Better Planet Award’ — under the farm sustainability assessment (FSA).

A statement from Illovo Sugar Malawi Plc says the SAI Platform is a global non-profit network and one of the primary global food and drink value-chain initiatives for sustainable agriculture, developing sustainable agriculture solutions through member-driven pre- competitive collaboration.

Illovo MD Katandula (left) and VP of the SAI Platform of Katharine Teague (right) after handing over the award

Through its solution, the FSA, it enables businesses to assess, improve, and validate on-farm sustainability.

The company further says the FSA’s Growing a Better Planet Award will be celebrating farmers, individuals and organisations who demonstrate leadership and innovation in their efforts to continuously improve on-farm sustainability.

Illovo Sugar Malawi supported Phata to submit its award nomination on the grounds of its leading sustainability initiatives.

Following an adjudication process amongst nominations from major businesses across the world at the FSA Community of Practice event in Rome between April 19-21, 2023, the Phata Cooperative was announced the winner with the award received on its behalf by Megan Harrington, Illovo’s Group Grower Agriculture Strategy Support Strategist.

The award was handed over to Phata Cooperative by Illovo Sugar Malawi Managing Director, Lekani Katandula who is quoted as saying he “was incredibly pleased about the win, given the long-standing and close partnership with the Phata Cooperative and their management consultants Agricane, which has matured over the past 12 years”.

“The major benefit we both share in this relationship — outside of our business transactions — is that of the assurance we both have for ongoing governance, social inclusion and environmental sustainability in the supply chain.

“This assurance is guided and verified through the FSA tool, together with Phata’s Fairtrade certification.

“This award recognises the cooperative’s leadership in sustainability, operating within a community stressed by climate change, deforestation, and poverty.

“They have driven interventions such as renewable charcoal production, crop diversification and biodiversity which have demonstrated that sustainability is possible, and indeed essential, within a smallholder context,” Katandula is quoted as saying.

Bouke Bijl of AgriCane, co-founders of Phata, mirrored Katandula’s sentiments, saying “verification initiatives like the FSA are key drivers for the continued success of the Phata Cooperative in ensuring that it remains an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable production entity that will consistently continue providing income and livelihood security to all of its members”.

“As Team Phata, we are very proud to have achieved this award! This could only be achieved with the continued efforts of the management team and the committed leadership by the Executive Committee,” Bijl is quoted as saying.

The company adds that Phata’s ground-breaking achievement follows Illovo Sugar Africa’s first FSA audit process in 2022, whose result — conducted under FSA version 3.0 — was ‘silver level’ status for all of its participating estates, those being Nchalo, Dwangwa, Maragra, Kilombero, Nakambala and Ubombo.

“Most importantly, the three independent growers within the Nchalo factory’s cane supply also participated in the 2022 FSA audits, of which Phata Cooperative and Kasinthula Cane Growers Association were the very first sustainability accreditation for smallholder sugarcane farming in Africa under FSA 3.0.

“Kaombe Sugar Estate, a large-scale grower in the Shire Valley, also achieved a Silver Level status. It serves as a powerful example of what is possible within grower agriculture and for the Illovo group, provides the impetus for it to roll out the FSA sustainability process across its wider grower base.

Katandula sums it up by saying: “It demonstrates that adopting sustainable agricultural practices can be achieved, whilst also delivering powerful livelihood and community development outcomes.”

Information that Illovo has provided indicates that Phata Sugarcane Outgrowers Cooperative in Malawi was formed in 2011 and is a smallholder farmer-owned organisation with 1,130 household members today.

The farmers, who operate in a climate-risk area, pool their land and operate under irrigation at a much larger economy of scale, than independently.

Designed as such to bring about sustainable development outcomes, its founding partner is Agricane, with grant funding received from European Union and with the assistance of impact investors, such as AgDevCo.

In addition to a range of other crops and farming activities, the cane produced across more than 600 hectares of irrigated fields is milled at Illovo’s Nchalo sugar factory in Chikwawa in the Southern Region.

In addition, the Cooperative also farms two hectares of orchards (mangoes, bananas and oranges); 30 hectares of food crops (maize and kidney beans); conserves and sustainably manages 50 hectares of natural and planted forests; has sustainable beekeeping; and also has 1.2 hectares of fishponds — as a sustainable protein source for smallholder members.

The Cooperative also operates sustainable charcoal production, using trees harvested from its own planted woodlots, with the intention of disrupting deforestation and illegal charcoal activities within the surrounding area.

Income from Phata’s activities has substantially improved the livelihoods of Phata’s smallholder farmers and it is also a significant employer within the local community.

Wider community impact has also been realised through the spending of Fairtrade Premiums on local development projects.

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