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Agribusiness hub sets its sights on European markets

Dossier: Women agribusinesses

Thanthwe Farms produces over 100 t of high quality fruit and vegetables year-round

© Gift Chimulu


Malawian agriprenuer, Ngabaghila Chatata, is co-founder and managing director of Thanthwe Farms, an innovative agribusiness, which aims to be a leading producer of high-value horticultural produce in Malawi and across Africa.

Evolving from a horticulture farm, Thanthwe has transformed into an agribusiness hub that is incubating over 3,000 youth and smallholder farmers a year. Using climate-smart technologies, such as greenhouse farming and drip irrigation, Thanthwe Farms produces over 100 t of high quality fruit and vegetables year-round (including cucumber, melons, mushrooms, sweet peppers and tomatoes) for supply to local hotels and supermarkets in Malawi. To produce added-value products, the farm enterprise is also establishing its own agro-processing and packaging facilities for products such as dried mangoes, dried tomatoes and hibiscus tea, which it ultimately plans to export.

“In 2012, we started with a quarter of an acre as we were wondering why we import vegetables like green pepper, spinach and potatoes,” explains Ngabaghila Chatata in a Spore interview at her farm on the outskirts of Lilongwe. “In 2014, we realised that our customers were complaining as we could not consistently supply them. We needed to grow the business and that’s when we responded to the call for Business Linkage grants from the African Development Bank (AfDB) through Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism.” As a result of their successful application, AfDB funded expansion of the farm’s greenhouses from 400 to 1,700 m2 and, in November 2015, Chatata quit full-time employment to focus on the farm.

“Sometimes when you start a business, you just want to maintain what you started with when the business environment is telling you otherwise. It is important to know what customers are looking for and respond accordingly, this is what led to growth of our business,” shares Chatata.

At the time of our interview, Chatata was training farmer cooperatives in pre-greenhouse installation; Thanthwe is the sole supplier of greenhouses in Malawi to other farmers. Her vision is for Malawi to grow and export high value vegetables that can compete on the international scene. To achieve this, she states, “We are incubating other businesses, giving them skills in running an agribusiness and how to grow their crops so that, together, we can produce the quality the export market is looking for. For instance, instead of selling our tomatoes loose, they will be packaged and labelled to international standards.”

Maximising profits

According to Chatata, as elsewhere in Africa, Malawian farmers face challenges with market access due to poor roads and the distances to travel to reach a market, which leads to high postharvest losses and farmers losing essential income. To help tackle this issue, Thanthwe Farm is planning to become a produce aggregator to enable individual horticulture farmers to take their farm produce to Thanthwe for processing and/or packaging to make the products more competitive and reduce postharvest losses.

Chatata also believes in maximum utilisation of resources. “Using the vertical space in the greenhouse gives us an edge, whilst other people are struggling with crop productivity, in the greenhouse we achieve higher yields per unit area,” she explains. “Our land has sandy soil and that means we have to put in a lot of manure. So we compost all our organic products and add animal manure and then mix this with the soil. By doing that, we are retaining moisture.” Drip irrigation is also used in the greenhouses and open field, which reduces water use on the farm up to 90%.

Chatata states the farm was started, along with her husband, with personal savings from their jobs. However, as the farm has developed, they have found other collaborative partners, such as the NGO Land ‘O Lakes which has supported the upgrading of the irrigation system. “We had our own borehole but they have helped us to drill another borehole and one overhead tank of capacity 5,000 l; we have bought three tanks increasing the capacity to 20,000 l.”

Nevertheless, she acknowledges that access to capital can be a major issue and that sometimes the temptation is to go out and get a loan which is beyond the size of your business. “Over the years, we have learnt to only source the capital we need. Where possible, we have taken advantage of grants and obtained finance from bank loans only where it is necessary. I am currently reaching out to over 3,000 smallholder farmers but this type of work is supported by development partners.” She explains that the current training programme is being supported by UN Women under its Women Economic Empowerment through Climate Smart Agriculture initiative.

Building women’s business skills

A beneficiary of the UN Women-funded initiative and chairperson of one of the farmer groups, Fedia Banda states: “We are here to learn the various resilience interventions they are using. In our village, water is a challenge whereas here they have water storage tanks and underground pipes used in drip irrigation so they can cultivate throughout the year.” Banda adds that being able to plant year-round means more food, more money and the possibility of sending her children to school.

Chatata actively encourages women to network and get involved in programmes that support capacity building and to diversify their endeavours. She herself has received training from Mhub Growth Accelerator initiative, as well as the Gracia Machel Women Creating Wealth programme. “In order to scale your business, you need skills in business management, which you can only get through the incubation process. So my appeal is that, in Africa, we need more business incubators to build women’s business skills,” she advises.

“I am a strong believer that the first thing should be your competencies and being a woman is second. So I don’t deal with people as a woman. I deal with people as the one carrying the authority that I am carrying as a professional person. When you do it that way, you will not be entangled with the perceptions that a woman shouldn’t be doing what she is doing,” states Chatata who now employs 15 full-time staff, as well as 10 part-time staff to do specific manual tasks and a pool of 10 consultants who are mainly engaged in training facilitation. She advises women entrepreneurs to rise above the challenges they face and work on their dream as if it all depends on them.

To realise her dreams, Chatata plans to increase the land for herbal crops in order to scale up processing and packaging of a range of herbal products (hibiscus, lemongrass and ginger). “We are working to penetrate the Eastern African market by the end of 2020 when we will be reaching out to 5,000 farmers,” Chatata reveals. Ultimately, she adds, they hope to penetrate the European market.