‘Land, water changed us’

For those in the low-income bracket, particularly living in the rural areas of southern Africa, the major worry is how to afford the fees to ensure their children’s education.

For Martha Steven in her mid 30s and mother of three, the worry over school fees is fast fading in her past, thanks to land and water at the Ngolowindo Agricultural Cooperative Society situated about 100 kms east of Malawi’s capital Lilongwe in Sango Bay along Lake Malawi.

Using water from the lake through one of the simplest irrigation techniques, the Cooperative society is an example of what should be done if the goal of poverty eradication by the year 2015 is to be realized in the Zambezi river basin and beyond.

The 140-member cooperative has transformed people’s lives through efficient use of water from Lake Malawi. Lake Malawi, Africa’s third largest freshwater lake after lakes Victoria and Tanganyika is found in the Zambezi river basin and covers 28 000 sq km.

The Ngolowindo Agricultural Cooperative Society is one of many initiatives going on at community level in the Zambezi river basin as the concept of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) continues to gain momentum.

“The Cooperative has worked well for me and it has transformed my life. I used to worry about school fees for my children, about food, clothes for family members and I used to labour on my own in the fields and had a pole and mud house.

“I am now able to send my children to school, buy them new clothes, food, pay for labour to work on my fields. I have even built a brick house with iron roofing sheets,” she said with a sense of pride at her achievements.

Her colleague, Felesita Malangiza, in her mid 40s and mother of five concurred with her. She has been an active member of the society for more than 10 years having joined in 1992.

“It has not been easy. It has been a long and tough road, but the rewards are worth it,” she said adding, “With my husband working in the city, am able to support the family here.”

Narrating the cooperative’s history, Steven, Vice-Chairperson of the society’s Marketing Committee said it all started after the Malawi government officials from the Water Department held discussions with the district administrator in Salima over the possibility of having some land allocated for an agricultural irrigation scheme.

After consultations with chiefs who in turn discussed the idea of an irrigation scheme with their people, appropriate land was identified. Community members were invited to join the scheme. There was only one criteria to becoming a member, hard work during clearance of the land.

“We started with people clearing the land and those that worked hard became members. You know how it is, some want it easy and other are prepared to toil to the end,” said Malangiza, also a member of the marketing committee.

Each member has been allocated land on the 17-hectare piece of land. Using funding from the European Union (EU), an irrigation system was put in place.

Initially, the society was set up as a scheme. This meant that people worked on their fields independent of each other, they decided how much of a certain crop to grow and they marketed on their own. This meant they competed for markets among themselves as they sometimes grew the same type of crops.

Realising the challenges of a scheme, a cooperative was formed to allow for efficient land use and also assist with marketing of the produce as well as coordinated management.

“There is a big difference between when we were just a scheme and now when we are a cooperative,” said Steven. “The cooperative has helped us become more organized. I am able to manage my money well. We are also able to manage crop production well.”

The cooperative, formed with the assistance of an EU appointed implementation agent, COSPE, has seen the construction of a shade with a cold room and a store room. Members agree on how much crop each will grow, for example, if they want to grow tomatoes, each member is allocated a piece on the tomato field.

After harvesting, the cooperative members take the crop to the shade where it is weighed and priced. They are issued with a vulture and are paid when the crop has been sold. This way of marketing has minimized the conflicts the members used to have before they established the cooperative when each was responsible for marketing their harvest.

“We have improved our marketing techniques to avoid stock piling. We use a staggering approach to growing crops. People are limited in terms of the size of field and amount of crop they can grow to allow everyone to be able to sell their crop. We have also learnt to grade the vegetables,” says Steven.

It is not all rosy in the cooperative as the economic situation is making more and more people establish income generating projects. Steven pointed out that their major challenge is to secure large markets, particularly big supermarket chains and training institutions.

They have won tenders with big supermarket groups and training institutions but the hurdle has been that sometimes they are asked to supply for a whole year.

“We can only supply for six months because that is the way our season is.”

“Our tomatoes are of good quality and this has been acknowledged by a number of our clients. However, there is a lot of competition and even though we have tenders to supply certain markets, sometimes we are turned away because someone would have delivered.

“Because the Tomato harvest is usually a bumper one, our wish is to get equipment to make tomato juice and sauce. Transport is yet another challenge. Although they have a one-tonne truck, it is too small to carry all their produce to the larger markets on time,” Steven said.

A walk around the fields shows members of the cooperative, both men and women busy working on their portions. In the okra field, this writer saw members spraying their crops, while in the maize field, they were weeding and watering using the canals and siphoning pipes. Others were seen preparing the land for fresh crops.

The sense of cooperation, the commitment of the members is felt as one talks to them. There is accountability in the use of chemicals and equipment as recording takes place each time one wants to use them on their portions.

A group of visitors from the Zambezi river basin states who were in Sango Bay to attend the Zambezi Action Plan Project 6, Phase II (ZACPRO 6.2)’s Project Steering Committee (PSC) meeting mid October, could not help commend the cooperative.

“This is impressive. They are organized and they use the simplest method of irrigation and it works,” said Dr Mike Tumbare, Zambezi River Authority (ZRA)’s Chief Executive.

His organization will soon organize an exchange visit to the cooperative for people from Zambia’s southern province “so they can come and see and learn with the hope of having such a scheme”.

Botswana’s Acting Deputy Director in the Department of Water Affairs, Othusitse Katai echoed Tumbare’s sentiments.

A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report released during November says farmers with access to irrigation are less likely to be among the poorest.

Relatively poor people in rural areas with pieces of land available and water for irrigation have been able to cast off the shackles of absolute poverty.

“Some years back before I joined the cooperative, I was unable to send my children to school. I was not able to buy enough food and I was always in debt. But that is a thing of the past. I am not rich, but I can provide for my family,” says Dorothy Manda, the current chairperson of the cooperative.

Manda says for her to successfully manage her piece of land, she first underwent multi-phased training over a period of six months conducted by Malawi’s ministry of Agriculture.

“It (the training) helped us a lot such that we are now able to teach our friends; the idea being that the knowledge should be shared for the benefit of our community,” she says.

She says because of its viability the scheme has drawn a lot of admiration from Malawi and beyond.

“Some of these food security problems within the region can be solved through irrigation. What is important is the mode of funding. If it can be done here, it can be done anywhere.

You cannot just develop land and leave without having an impressive funding model,” explains Dr Jefter Sakupwanya, a Water Resource Expert at ZACPRO 6.2 Project.

He says previously huge funds had been spent on similar projects but these did not work because of the model of funding.

Sakupwanya feels empowering people through such irrigation schemes is better than feeding them.

“You give people the dignity of earning an income and feeding themselves. No one wants to be fed by another,” he adds.

Observers say that most governments in the region have done well to build dams for their people but note that unless the governments go the vital step further by ensuring that the water gets to people’s fields the war against hunger will not be won. (Additional reporting ZACPRO 6.2)

December 2006
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