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MOZAMBIQUE: Markets Too Far For Farmers’ Profit

Jessie Boylan

LAGO DISTRICT, Mozambique, Aug 29 2009 (IPS) - August is peak tomato season in the Niassa province of northwest Mozambique, and farmers are bringing bucket-loads of tomatoes to sell to Nkwichi Lodge, one of the few buyers of local produce in the region.

Farmers come by boat and on foot from as far as 30 kilometres away to sell produce to the lodge.

“We certainly buy everything on the vegetable side,” says Patrick Simkin, director of Nkwichi, an eco-lodge and responsible tourism venture located on Lake Niassa, “but that’s just to encourage the market…

“If we said ‘no’ to those guys (who brought 83 kilos of tomatoes) yesterday, they’re not going to bother to do that trip again; because it would have cost them quite a bit of money.”

Nkwichi is located in one of the poorest areas in Mozambique, the northern Lago district, about 3,000 km from Mozambique’s capital city Maputo and two hours by boat from the closest town, on Likoma Island in Malawi. It is estimated that for the average yearly income for the district’s population of approximately 35,000 people is less than 100 U.S. dollars.

Contributing around $100,000 a year into the local economy in the form of staff salaries and local purchasing, Nkwichi plays an extremely important role in the community.

“What we buy locally is food,” says Simkin, “like fish and vegetables, we also buy building materials – bricks and labour, thatching grass, planks, arts and crafts and furniture.”

Farmers in the district also travel in other directions, for up to up to two days to sell their food to other markets in towns like Likoma, Metangula or Lichinga. However traveling for up to two days to reach these towns – where prices are depressed by competition with other farmers – means that for many villagers, the cost of transport and fuel neutralises any profits.

“Sometimes small farmers take vegetables and try to sell them along the roadside,” Carlos Barnabe Zandamela, a technical adviser for Mozambique’s National Directorate for Agricultural Extension based told IPS over the phone from Maputo.

“Or they wait for someone with their own truck to come past to buy. The problem they face is with the price they get. They have to negotiate (from a position of weakness).”

Zandamela says improving transport options for farmers is not part of the agriculture ministry’s remit. “If anyone is (doing anything), it would be the commerce ministry. But the country is run on a free-market basis, so no one is really taking responsibility for this.”

Transport solutions for food and people, like the pickup trucks and minibuses that are common in neighbouring Malawi, are absent from this part of Mozambique. In the entire district, there is a single truck owned by a Cobue resident. The roads are generally terrible and the distances are vast.

The Mozambican government spent over $1 million on building a road from Cobue to Metangula, which has been welcomed by the communities.

The government-built roads have provided some relief. “More people sell to Likoma, Cobue and Metangula now, because of the road,” says Emmanuel Kachamecha, who manages a demonstration farm set up by Nkwichi and the Manda Wilderness Community Trust.

“Last year, people were going to the lodge every day to sell their food, now they’re only coming every four days, because they can also sell elsewhere.”

“The solution for maize, rice and fish is truck transport,” says Simkin, “I think that is really going to change peoples lives. I think the solution is that local people really need to purchase more; it doesn’t have to be in cash though, they can barter. There is little understanding of business in these villages, so growing more than you need to eat isn’t often thought about.”

“One thing we looked at with the farm,” says Simkin, “is drying and processing produce here so, one, it’s reduced in volume, and two, it doesn’t go bad; but with vegetables it’s not really working.”

“The most profitable thing for the time being,” says Zandamela, “Seems to be farmers’ involvement in the out-grower schemes, as the market in that case is assured by the contractors. For example, cotton, tobacco and sugar.”

One notable example is the 120,000 or so small farmers who supply tobacco for export to the Mozambique Leaf Tobacco company. Company technicians reach farmers spread over four provinces by motorbike; tobacco is dried on farms, and collected via baling and buying centres to MLT headquarters at Tete.

In Nampula Province, a large scale poultry farmer has built relationships with 40,000 smallholders to grow maize and soya as chicken feed.

Farmers in the Lago district too are slowly moving beyond growing food for subsistence.

“People are just learning how to do things better,” says Kachamecha, “before they would just grow things for their own use but, but now they are seeing how they can make money by selling to Likoma or Nkwichi, and I think it’s changing.”

Dr Firmino Mucavele, a former economic advisor to the Mozambican government, says it will require sustained investment to help farmer move beyond subsistence agriculture; investment in line with Mozambique’s New Green Revolution Strategy launched in 2007.

“The development of agriculture provides agro-industries – food processing, extraction industries and so on. And where you have these you usually have social development,” he says.

“It would also result in the development of the manufacturing sector. As farmers in rural areas get increased incomes they also would want to purchase manufactured goods and it creates a domino effect for development.”

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lizabeth paravisini-gebert