Next steps for Central Co-op’s Malawi Partnership

Central Co-op developed a programme of support for co-ops in Malawi to transform their trading capacity

Last year Central Co-op launched a Co-operative International Trading Development Fund, with a proportion of sales put aside every time customers spend on Co-op Fairtrade products.

The first country to benefit is Malawi, where 70% of people live below the poverty line. Central used cash from the fund for a joint project with the Co-op College and the Malawi Federation of Co-operatives (Mafeco), to help co-ops in the country build trading capacity. 

A presentation on the project was given at Central Co-op’s Women’s Voices Event on 8 March. Charlotte Castille, the society’s head of digital marketing, membership and PR, said the goal was to put principle 6, co-operation among co-ops, into action.

In a video clip, Portia Chirwa, co-op development officer at Mafeco, described the challenges facing farmers in Malawi, such as climate change, poor access to land, farm inputs and finance, and low adoption of climate-smart technologies. Women in agriculture receive lower wages, and a lack of access to finance, education and health services is a recurring issue.

The partnership enables women to have decent jobs in coffee, tea and nut production and make an income for their families, said Chirwa, adding that 65% of co-op members are women. One of them is Mercy Lupiya, who began tea farming in 2003 and became a member of a co-op in 2014, farming a 1.2 hectare plot.

Addressing the audience via a video message, Lupiya told how, through Mafeco, her co-op received training on how to make manure and how to manage the business. The women members also learnt how to sew good quality sanitary pads.

She mentioned some of the challenges in tea farming, including having too few tractors, high fertiliser prices, and under-cultivation of the land – which  Mafeco has helped tackle by providing tea seeds to grow new plants in empty gaps in the field.

Another co-op member, Joyce Khoza, told how she started tea farming in 2007 and joined the co-op in 2010. The co-op offered training on how to make compost manure and pluck tea, and gave her seedlings to plant in gaps on her land.

The co-op has high ambitions. Khoza and Lupiya both spoke of the need for motor transport – trucks and a tractor so the tea can be transported straight away – and of the co-op’s wish to have its own processing factory to help it maximise income from its crop.

Central Co-op stores sell a range of products linked to Malawi, including the Revolver co-op range, which sources coffee from Mzuzu Coffee Planters Union and teas from the Msuwadzi Small Farmers Association. A proportion of sales from these Revolver products will fund the work of the Malawi Federation of Co-operatives as it builds local development programmes.

The Msuwadzi Smallholder Tea Growers Association has been Fairtrade-certified and accredited with the Rainforest Alliance since 2009. Outside of season for tea, its farmers harvest other areas to generate an additional income. The association has 200 members, 65% of whom are women.

Hannah Birch from Revolver says the Malawi partnership has been “inspiring”, bringing together different co-ops to make a big change.

Coffee is a tougher market than tea when it comes to breaking a new product, she said. But Revolver has managed to introduce its own range of Nespresso-compatible coffee pods, which are 100% compostable. It is now working with the Co-op College to identify co-ops in Malawi for support going forward.

Since launching its Malawi Partnership in July 2022, Central has sold over 100,000 products, amassing over £134,000.

Other achievements include providing training in organic farming and governance to 15 co-ops, helping to set up unions and co-ops, and hiring a project manager in Malawi. 

It now wants to plant 4,000 extra macadamia seedlings, train over 800 farmers on organic fertiliser production, plant 20% more coffee trees and deliver training on co-op finance, governance and leadership.

The focus will be Malawi for the next five years after which it will assess results and decide how or where to progress next.

The Malawi range can be purchased from any Central Co-op store. It features the Our Malawi Partnership logo, which was designed by a co-op.