Feature Story

How entrepreneurial women in Malawi are breaking down barriers by growing tomatoes that transform lives

Starting a new business is like planting a seed. No one knows that better than the group of women who have brought their tomato farm to life near the white sandy beaches of Lake Malawi.

The community project in Chintheche, northern Malawi, represents a simple solution to some of the multiple challenges the wider rural community here face. It’s also a financial lifeline for some of its members – and the chance to join a network of women entrepreneurs growing as strong and fruitful as the vines they tend to. As 32-year-old Lydia Phiri says: “I enrolled in the project to make more money to support my family, but over the last couple of months, I have gained a lot more.”

The backdrop to the farming project is that less than 10% of farmers in Malawi have access to irrigation, which leaves them dependent on the increasingly erratic rainfall. Coupled with a lack of refrigeration for produce – due to affordability and low rural electrification rates – and limited access to markets in which to sell crops, almost a third of harvests are lost. This is a figure that goes up to almost 50% for more delicate produce such as tomatoes. This obviously has a knock-on impact on farmers’ livelihoods – and the environment, due to the wasted food and wasted resources used to grow it. For women farmers there are other barriers to overcome, too. These include difficulties accessing land, finance and the latest technology. Women may also be caring for family members, limiting the time they have to run a farm or business, which affects their earning potential. Gaining access to markets is also often harder for women farmers than men.

Cultivating a business

A solution to these hurdles arrived in the form of the humble tomato – for which there is an appetite in the local market, particularly for a consistent, high quality and reliable supply, all year round. But to meet this demand, and overcome the challenges involved, an innovative business model was needed. So began a partnership between renewable energy developer African Mini Grids (AMG), development organisation Practical Action Consulting and agribusiness experts Modern Farming Technologies (MFT), which mainly works with women farmers.

The resulting project – called Renewable Energy for Agriculture – was funded with a grant from the Powering Renewable Energy Opportunities (PREO) programme, supported by the IKEA Foundation, UK aid via the Transforming Energy Access platform and GIZ. It aimed to tackle some of the challenges the women faced, supporting them to be less reliant on the weather, respond to a changing climate and grow produce all year round by looking at each stage of the value chain.

Starting in September 2021, the women were provided with solar-powered pumps, drip irrigation systems and greenhouses on a ‘rent-to-own’ scheme, which will take three to four years to pay off between them, depending on their collective level of production.

This addresses the challenge of irrigation (the water comes from Lake Malawi), energy and land access (the greenhouses take up little room), and asset ownership. Meanwhile, the greenhouses help tackle the obstacles of farming in an environment where it is hard to control conditions; the tomatoes grow well in the greenhouses, and pests and diseases are better controlled. Ongoing technical support means the women are able to learn the skills they need to be able to produce high quality tomatoes consistently – whether that’s how to use the pumps or techniques around harvesting.

In terms of post-harvest, a solar-powered chilling plant developed by AMG extends the shelf life of the tomatoes, again meeting the energy challenge that results in the produce spoiling in the heat without refrigeration. The project also works to tackle the market barriers the women face, linking them with local and national buyers so that they get better prices and a steady demand for what they grow. An additional benefit for the time-poor women is the reduced time commitment needed to run and manage the greenhouses. They work in shifts, freeing up time for other activities, as each individual works no more than an average of 15 hours a week. For this, they make a reasonable income that far exceeds other opportunities in the area.

The project has also shown a positive impact on the environment too – through the generation of renewable energy and a total of 7 tons of CO2 emissions reduced thanks to diesel not being used topower the cold storage units and the pumps.

The future looks rosy for the group of women, like the red produce they cultivate. Since 2021, the project has grown from two greenhouses and a handful of women to 45 greenhouses and 135 women.

They produce up to 3,500kg of tomatoes each week, with MFT selling what they grow to shops, hotels, restaurants, farmers’ markets and the wider community. Taking into account what they pay back on the rent-to-own scheme, if production is maintained at that level for a year, each farmer’s annual net income adds up to 624 euros for the hours they work each week – and that is not even peak production.

To put that in context, the poverty line in Malawi is an estimated 150 euros a year. And while there is no data on what constitutes a living income in northern Malawi, the average household in southern Malawi needs 1,092 euros to achieve a decent standard of living, according to 2019 figures. And so 624 euros would provide more than half of that.

Budding entrepreneurs

Lydia, a single mother of five, is one of the leaders of the community scheme in Chintheche. Before the PREO-funded project, she and her family were struggling to get by on their cassava, maize and rice farming. Due to the hot and unpredictable weather along the lake shores, Lydia could only farm during the rainy season. What Lydia earned from her harvest didn’t cover the needs of her family.

From the money she’s earned from the tomato farm, Lydia has sent her son to secondary school, bought food for the family and school uniforms for her children who are still at primary school. Lydia encourages other women in the group to use their money wisely so that they can fulfill their ambitions.

It’s not all about money though – but knowledge too, and the experience has improved Lydia’s decision-making and entrepreneurial skills.

Lydia explained: “I’ve had the chance to learn how improved farming works; making manure, planting other types of crops, tomato trellising and de-suckering, pest and disease management, and how to use a solar irrigation pump – which I will one day own. Knowing that I will own the greenhouse and the pumps just makes me feel happy. Other women who’ve recently become members of the community project feel the same, we’re all committed to the pay-back period because we’ve never owned equipment or assets.” Lydia added: “The project is a life-changing one, which needs to be sustained.”

Role models

Profits are invested back into the project so that other women can join – and women are inspired along the value chain. This includes those who source the tomatoes for bigger businesses, like Sunbird Mzuzu Hotel procurement officer Agness Banda, who appreciated the quality of the women’s tomatoes.

Spurred into action by their success, Agness hopes to buy her own greenhouse and grow tomatoes on a small piece of land she owns.

There is also a big opportunity for women traders to buy the tomatoes and sell them on at a profit in more informal markets, a potential that hadn’t fully been anticipated as part of the PREO project. These enterprising women typically buy 20-30kg of produce each day and anecdotal evidence suggests they are making a 15-20% margin.

Fyness, 37, is a businesswoman whose dynamic approach to life lives up to her name. She decided to set up a kiosk and start selling the women’s tomatoes in her neighbourhood, impressed by the quality and longer shelf-life.

Seemingly ever searching for new business opportunities, the mother of three has bought a secondhand car from selling the tomatoes grown by the women and her poultry farming. She uses it as a taxi.

Attracted by the relatively quick return on investment for the tomatoes, Fyness is using the income from her taxi to save for a greenhouse too. Given that she’s reached her other goals, it seems a plan destined for success. There’s just one more ambition for now. Like a plant that sheds its seeds so others can grow, Fyness wants to be a role model to other women in her community.

And so the vine continues.