Solar power and business model innovation set to increase income for Malawian women farmers and local food security

Lack of irrigation, refrigeration and access to markets are responsible for the loss of over a third of the crops produced by smallholder farmers in Malawi, making it hard to earn a decent living through agriculture. Women farmers are particularly vulnerable, as they must also contend with limited access to land and financial resources, in addition to shouldering family care responsibilities.

To overcome these challenges, Practical Action Consulting, in partnership with African Mini Grids (AMG) and Modern Farming Technologies (MFT), and with the financial support of Powering Renewable Energy Opportunities programme (PREO), is piloting an innovative farming business model that integrates and improves each stage of the agricultural value chain. Their proposed approach seeks to enable women farmers to increase their yields by growing crops in greenhouses using solar drip irrigation, and to preserve their produce in a solar-powered chilled plant, drastically reducing post-harvest losses. It also aims to establish new market linkages with an array of wholesale buyers, enabling the women farmers to sell their produce at higher and more reliable prices, and reducing risks and single buyer monopolies.

Progress has been rapid since the outset of the project: two thirds of the 45 planned greenhouses have already been constructed across three sites near the village of Chintheche in rural northern Malawi and are operational after only five months. In addition, 90 out of the 135 selected women farmers have been trained in modern crop growing practices and smarter harvest and post-harvest techniques. To help modernise their enterprises, farmers have also been given support on improving business and financial management, as well as safeguarding and safety standards.

The supported farmers are now producing much higher volumes of vegetables (a 4.5-fold increase since the start of the project) which are being refrigerated in an MFT-owned energy efficient, solar-powered chill plant before being sold in bulk to wholesale buyers. Whereas the farmers used to sell their produce directly to neighbours and small local markets, they are now achieving better prices through contracts signed by MFT with eight buyers, including large retailers, local supermarkets, hotels and restaurants. Through improved access to more lucrative markets, the farmers have seen an increasing rise in profits and their income.

With the implementation partners recouping their investment by selling the produce at a marked-up price, the project started to break even in September 2022. As more farmers are onboarded and production levels increase further over the coming months, the projected profitability of this business model will help demonstrate its replicability.

With a rent-to-own scheme in place, the farmers will eventually own the greenhouses themselves which will enhance their profits and widen their scope for business expansion. At the same time, MFT intends to reinvest their share of the profits in the construction of more greenhouses to meet the higher capacity of the supported farmers and potentially enrol more women farmers.   

The next few months will be critical as more data will allow PAC to gauge the full impact of the project and its potential for replication and scaling. PAC particularly hopes to see MFT achieve greater reach and impact as a social enterprise, as more women farmers improve their livelihoods through the project. The ripple effect of benefits for the wider community will also become increasingly apparent as the higher volume of produce sold boosts local food security, drives the local economy forward and generates additional employment opportunities for buyers and transportation companies.