We were out in the bush today, surveying a site for an exciting new project on the the banks of the Lunyangwa River. Malawi has seven months each year with no rain so perennial rivers are a Godsend for agriculture and, for us, they bring the possibility of irrigated farming.

We are finding some success with greenhouse farming – enabling women to grow tomatoes and peppers and see a big increase in their household income. We sell the produce to hotels, restaurants and supermarkets and they are asking if we can also supply other vegetables with the same consistent quality and supply. We have some ideas on how to do this and we are delighted that the States of Guernsey have agreed this week to back our ideas with a grant of almost £150,000 over the next three years. We have secured land beside the river and will irrigate 10 hectares (16 football pitches) to grow a wide range of vegetables all year round. Solar pumps will bring the water from the river and we will also have pigs and chickens to deal with farm wastes, produce manure for the farm, and provide an additional income stream.

Site for the new farm

What will make the farm unique, however, is the ownership model. We are setting up a new company and inviting Malawians to buy shares – we want this to be an entirely Malawi owned farm with all the profits going to local people. We expect the shares to be bought by people who have a salaried job so they will not be the farm workers. Rather, they will employ local people to do the work – probably farmers who have never had a guaranteed paid job – and we are buying farm machines to take the back breaking work out of preparing the land. Everyone is a partner in the venture including both shareholders and workers and everyone shares the profits: we see this as the John Lewis approach! I wrote a blog about this in April, calling it The Missing Middle because agriculture in Malawi is largely made up of two extremes:

  • Hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers scraping a living from a small patch of ground. Most are farming under rain-fed conditions and are at the mercy of the climate.
  • At the other end of the scale there are large plantations – tea, rubber, sugar, macadamia, chillies – and these are huge farms, owned by foreign investors. The treatment of workers is variable and the profits invariably leave the country.

So,  The Missing Middle is farms of 10 – 50 hectares where we can have all the advantages of larger scale farming but ownership and profits can remain with Malawian people. It is really exciting to now be able to put this into practice.

Malawi Fruits receives support from many funders who like our ideas and innovative approaches. Last month the Co-operative Foundation announced that they would support greenhouse farming for women and we are going to have 20 large greenhouses on the same site as the Missing Middle farm, again drawing water from the Lunyangwa River.

The river is very beautiful and it was hot today so I suggested it would be great for a swim. One man said, “Do you like green mambas” and I quickly decided that this was a kind of wild swimming I could live without!