Cultivating Partnerships for Women’s Empowerment in Malawi: The Legumes Development Trust

No matter which social or economic indicators are used to rank the world’s poorest countries, Malawi consistently rises to the top. The development prospects for this small, landlocked country in southeastern Africa are uncertain; its challenges on the economic front – among others – significant; and its record for women’s rights, disastrous.

Despite this, Driana Lwanda maintains a sincere, contagious optimism. The woman in charge of programs for the African Institute of Corporate Citizenship, Driana talks enthusiastically of the actions this Malawian NGO is leading in the country. Their objective: to foster sustainable growth for local communities through business and trade, particularly by engaging the private sector.

Invited to attend the annual conference of International Volunteer Cooperation Organisations (IVCO), held in Montreal, Canada last fall, Driana eagerly shared how the AICC, through their various programs, is slowly but surely improving the economic situation of communities, while also improving the situation for women through economic empowerment. “Both issues are closely related: 80% of Malawi’s economy is based on agriculture, and 70% of these revenues are generated by women”, she noted.

In 2013, the AICC created Legumes Development Trust, these staple plants representing some of the country’s main crops. Acting as a coordination body for all actors working in this sector, the Trust aims to facilitate partnerships between stakeholders throughout the legumes value chain.

Their objective is clear: to make the sector more efficient and profitable in order to ultimately grow the revenues of every actor involved, starting with the farmers. The Trust is focused on improving the productivity and quality of legume crops, as well as on establishing a fair and stable price list. “Our strength resides in that we are working with the private sector”, explains Driana. “We bring together businesses, public sector, associations, and all the other actors of the value chain: small producers, commercial actors, transporters, those who export, those who process, etc. We identify the problems and try to find solutions by promoting better collaboration and coordination among those involved. Most of all, we call upon a sense of corporate social responsibility to get businesses to change the way they work with the public sector so that they can benefit the people, especially women and youth, and help build resilient communities with room for sustainable growth. Today, these businesses must contribute to a better distribution of wealth.”

Many volunteers of the Uniterra international cooperation program, implemented jointly by WUSC and CECI, have supported the AICC over the years. Among other initiatives, they have helped implement workshops to raise awareness or build capacity, and they also developed a geographical information system platform which helped build a network that connects the different actors of the legumes value chain. “As an example, this [platform] allows buyers to immediately find the raw materials they need, anywhere in the country”, explained Driana. “It also helped significantly increase the number of our partners. It’s a very precious tool!”

While the AICC offers support to all members of the communities involved, many of its activities are specifically focused on women. The Legumes Development Trust helped connect women farmers with businesses that provide them with seeds or that commit to buying a determined portion of their production. It also offered these women training on good agricultural practices.

We started realizing that even with the increase in productivity, the situation for the women of the sector in terms of involvement, responsibility or empowerment was not changing”, noted Driana. “Sure, there were more legumes available to use at home, but revenue from the harvest was still controlled by the men, who are traditionally in charge of sales.”

So AICC started using a different approach, encouraging women to process the legumes and sell the products themselves. As a result, close to 12,500 women farmers throughout the country started coming together to pool their production. “There are more than 300 groups of women meeting once a week to decide together what to do with their legumes”, proudly explained Driana, which offers training and mentoring to help these women build capacity. “For example, they may pool their peanut production and decide jointly whether to sell the harvest as is or to process the peanuts to make cooking oil or flour that they can sell themselves. By combining their respective production volume and by selling collectively, they gain more power and the revenues they generate allow them to provide for the daily needs of their family.”

Women’s economic empowerment has a direct impact on the relationships between women and the men in their families and in their broader communities. Driana herself admits to being surprised by the reach of the changes she witnesses week after week. “As [men] realize that women can be business partners too, [they] start progressing and breaking free of their traditionalist views. Many are encouraging women [in their communities], while a few even wish to partner with them!” said Driana with a smile, adding that the numerous training and awareness-building workshops for families are geared toward not only economic issues, but also human rights. “From the moment a woman starts bringing home some revenue, there is a drastic change in perspective”, she explained. “And in the vast majority of cases, this also marks the end of abuse.”

Carried by such positive results, the Legumes Development Trust is now looking to extend its efforts to youth entrepreneurship, all while continuing to support women to further develop their activities. The issue of international exportation is next in line, with a pilot project—in which a Uniterra volunteer is involved—to analyze the implementation of a sales platform through which Malawian women could sell their products to neighbouring countries.

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