Q&A with KASFA (Kaporo Smallholder Farmer Association), Malawi

We spoke to KASFA and their partner Just Trading Scotland. We discussed the Association's growing technique, work schemes, and the challenges that they face.

Tell us a bit about your association and how it was established.

KASFA (Kaporo Smallholder Farmers Association) started as a small grouping of rice farmers in 2001 who all grew Kilombero rice in the Karonga region of Northern Malawi.  

We approached NASFAM (National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi) about working with them and in December 2003. We were registered as a limited company with the Registrar of Cooperatives.  At that time, we were only about 1500 members.

From 2003 to around 2009 we saw very little growth.

It was only when we started the partnership with Just Trading Scotland (JTS) in 2009 that we started seeing rapid growth - from 2500 members at that time to around 8000 in 2016.  This led to the creation of smaller associations, which are also registered. These are Kaporo north, Kaporo south, Mpata and Ntchowo associations.

The organisational structure is as follows: individual farmers, club, association, union.  Each association is managed by an association field officer who reports to the association business manager.  Each association has a board of directors from which the chairperson and secretary are selected to be members of the union.  

The union board is the one which works with the manager. All projects in the four associations are under the manager and union board. As NASFAM affiliates we are also privileged to have directors at a national level.

How do you work with Just Trading Scotland?

Because KASFA does not have money to buy rice, we enter into agreements with a NASFAM business arm who buys the rice from KASFA and then sells to JTS for a fair price. JTS then sell it in the UK.  

All activities regarding, production, and promotion of the rice is done by KASFA until it gets to the UK. Then it is the responsibility of JTS to promote, sell and develop the market.

We, as farmers, have seen a lot of change doing business in this way as, through JTS, we are also able to get grants to support our activities through institutions such as the Scottish Government, a source of income we would not have got if it hadn’t been for our relationship with JTS.  They have worked hard at trying to create a market in the UK for our rice and thus creating sustainable livelihoods for us farmers, so we can better provide for our children and their future.

JTS has also supported the farmers of KASFA through the funding of various projects such as seed multiplication, education, ploughs, ox carts, wells, irrigation etc.  

Image: rice farmers standing in a field kasfa malawi

Just Trading Scotland mentioned that you use permaculture techniques for growing your rice. Can you talk a bit about these?

This is all about trying to make rice farming as long term and sustainable as possible and using environmentally friendly farming techniques.  

Ideally, we want every rice farmer to be able to have two harvests a year.  So as much as possible we don’t allow our farmers to use fertiliser. We teach our farmers to let the rice stalks decompose in the fields and then, when the first rains come, grass grows in the fields and we plough it and allow it to decompose there.

 We also encourage farmers to use the manure of animals like cattle to help feed the soil. All this helps to improve the soil quality, which produces a better quality of the harvest.  

You also have a scheme to support female farmers. How does this work?

Female farmers make up 50% of KASFA members and they get the same benefits of membership that a male farmer gets.  

A lot of these women are widows and have to provide for their immediate and often extended families.  So, we also give them support in the form of training to generate extra income in ways like baking and making crafts.  

However, the main way we support our female farmers was started when Mary, one of the JTS board members, came to visit us here in Karonga.  She had an audience with the female farmers who said they would like to have access to ploughs to make it easier on them and cut down on the intense manual labour and time involved in ploughing and preparing their fields.
  
A plough costs K 50 000 (approximately £55) so we set up a system where the female farmers pay K25 000 (approximately £27) as an instalment. Then at least six months or so later they pay another K25 000. Mostly the second payment is done after harvest. It is a revolving program with more and more women taking advantage of this.  So far over 100 female farmers now have a plough using this system.

What are the biggest challenges you currently face?

As an association, we have many challenges but the major ones which would have a direct positive impact on the sustainability of the association are:
    1. The association has no capital to buy the rice from farmers upfront
    2. The mill that we have is very old - we need a replacement
    3. Climate change - we can no longer rely on the rains and this increases the need to develop proper irrigation to the fields.

Q&A with Just Trading Scotland

How did you begin working with the KASFA farmers?

We are a fair trade food importer who seeks to create markets for small-scale producers in Asia and Africa.  We look for partnerships which bring mutual benefits and empowerment to both sides.  We first met the rice farmers at a trade fair in Glasgow in early 2008.  They offered to supply a container of rice which we would pay for as we sold it.  This was the real beginning of JTS.

We were subsequently funded by the Scottish Government and we received a grant for the first three years to assist with importing new products from Malawi and for educating pupils in schools in Scotland.  JTS began with a shipment of rice just in time for Fairtrade Fortnight 2009. 

Not having sold any rice before, we were puzzled about how to go about marketing.  A board member at the time came up with the 90kg Rice Challenge: ask schools, churches and Fairtrade groups to sell 90 kg of rice, the amount a farmer needs to sell to enable him or her to send one child to secondary school for a year.  It worked!

From the start, people enjoyed the aromatic Kilombero rice, with its ability to absorb flavours from other foods, produced by the Karonga farmers.  But they used recycled seed which led to a loss of flavour.  A programme of seed multiplication meant that 5000 farmers received certified seed: yields and quality improved dramatically.

The 90kg challenge has a strong educational pack to go with it and this has meant that many people now understand much more about rice farming.  We have had regular visits from the farmers and association managers and these have been crucial to our building relationships and links, as have our visits to Malawi.

Since then we have developed partnerships with small producer groups across the world and with supporters across Scotland and the rest of the UK.  

What are the biggest challenges you currently face?

Capital has been a continuing challenge. As we expand, working capital remains our major challenge. The long lead-times and lower profit margins on larger commercial sales, make expansion capital intensive and, relatively expensive. 

The way out of this dilemma has come through interest-free loans and donations from supporters.  

We would also like to expand our market in the UK but have an internal debate about the kind of markets we should be attempting to open up. Sales to churches and schools and Fairtrade groups have relatively high margins but require a lot of sales effort.  

Fairtrade shops and ethical shops have been our bread and butter since our inception.  It is imperative to our survival, the sustainability of our business as well as that of the rice farmers, that we increase sales and find new markets. However, we are not sure what that looks like yet so watch this space!

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