It's been almost a year since the launch of 'Our Malawi Partnership', an initiative created by Central Co-operative and supported by the Co-operative College and the Malawi Federation of Co-operatives (MAFECO).

The aim of the partnership is to 'live' Principle Six (co-operation among co-operatives), creating a strengthened and environmentally sustainable co-operative movement in Malawi, linked internationally to a major UK co-operative retailer – serving both the needs of co-operative members in Malawi and the UK.

In April 2023, Dr Sarah Alldred, our Head of International Partnerships, made her second visit to Malawi as part of the project, visiting the key co-operative unions across the tea, coffee, rice and nut sectors. For the first week of her visit, Sarah was accompanied by Jane Avery (the then President of Central Co-operative) as they travelled the country meeting co-operative members and growers working with 'Our Malawi Partnership'. Here, Sarah shares her day-by-day diary of week one:

Day one: Lilongwe

Jane and I started our visit by heading to the new MAFECO offices to meet with the MAFECO team, including John Mulangeni, Executive Director, and Jeruzye Munthali, Project Manager. John provided a brief history of the co-operative movement in Malawi and updated us on the current review of co-op law taking place. This will lead to the imminent publication of new co-operative policy which will act as guidance to a new Co-operative Act looking at simplifying registration, membership, auditing and taxation laws.

Later, we travelled to the Ministry of Trade and Industry, where we met the Principal Secretary of Co-operatives, Francis Enock Zhuwao, and the Deputy Registrar of Co-ops, Henry Mandere. This was an incredibly productive meeting where we agreed to develop a formal memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Ministry and MAFECO, which will help support the sustainability of MAFECO.

After the visit, we set out on the long journey to Mulanje, driving on tricky roads that had been damaged by the recent cyclone.

Day two: Mulanje (in the Thylo region)

We travelled to the Nalipiri Tea Co-operative, established in 2014, where we were welcomed with a song, performed by co-operative members. We spoke to growers about the key challenges they face including pricing in the market, a lack of tea seedlings and the need for a processing plant.

Nalipiri and the Ntende Tea Co-operative, also based in the Thylo region, are founding members of the newly formed Mulatho Tea Co-op Union, the first co-op tea union established in Malawi. A brilliant outcome for the first year of the programme!

After a very uplifting visit, we were back in the car for the long drive back to Lilongwe.

Day three: Nchisi

On our drive heading north to Mzuzu, we stopped in Nchisi to visit the Highlands Macadamia Co-operative (HIMACUL). There we met with HIMACUL director, Ken Mkangala, and Jane explained the ambition of the 'Our Malawi Partnership'. HIMACUL already trade with Liberation Nuts and NutCellars, both who sell into Central Co-op stores - so the great news is that you may have sampled their produce already!

We were also privileged to meet with two inspiring farmers from the Chikwtula Macadamia Co-operative, one of whom gave us a demonstration of macadamia processing.

Day four: Mzuzu

After an overnight stay at the Mzuzu Coffee Suites, which is part of Mzuzu Coffee Co-operative Union's diversification strategy, we were up early to meet with Jackson D K Ngambi, CEO of Mzuzu Coffee Union. Made up of six primary co-operatives with a total membership of over 2,600 coffee farmers, Mzuzu Coffee Union lost their Fair Trade status in 2016, due to not being able to pay their members on time, and have struggled since.

Mackson gave a great presentation about where Mzuzu is today and was very transparent about the challenges they have recently faced, which include the low price of coffee beans on international markets, the Fair Trade decertification, and meeting international standards of packaging.

The 'Our Malawi Partnership' aims to help Mzuzu meet their five-year vision, including re-obtaining Fair Trade certification, increasing union membership, and increasing the volume of trade through increased production and quality of coffee.

A highlight of the day was meeting with growers. We were introduced to mother and son (Minnie Mangochi and Brown Silumbu) who produce coffee as well as bananas, avocados and sugar cane on their family farm.

Day five: Nkhotakota

Today was all about rice - with a visit to the Bua Rice Co-operative in Nkhotakota, who took part in our focus groups when we were starting the programme. They produce mainly Kilombero rice in the spring and summer seasons, and part of the work with 'Our Malawi Partnership' will be to investigate rice crop diversification to help the growers stay productive throughout the rest of the year.

Many of Bua Rice Co-operative's ambitions for the next five years involve implementing practical solutions to problems, such as acquiring vehicles to ease transportation of harvests to market, purchasing equipment to improve office automation and farm mechanisation, and improving member livelihoods to allow them to build decent, iron sheet housing. 

The key focus for the 'Our Malawi Partnership' will be helping to establish more regional co-operative rice unions throughout Malawi.

After our visit to Nkhotakota, we returned to Lilongwe for Jane's last night in Malawi, before her return to the UK.

Week two

With Jane deposited safely at the airport for her flight home, Sarah, John and Jeruzye were straight back to work, meeting with Howard Msukwa and Tarcizio Chimbwanya from NASFAM, an association membership body of smallholder farmers in Malawi who supply rice to Central Co-operative via Just Trading Scotland.

The remainder of Sarah's visit was spent working with MAFECO, first to reflect on year one of the project, discussing baseline data, reporting requirements and member journeys. And then drafting work plans, for what promises to be a very productive year two of the project. 

We're excited to continue to work on this ambitious and impactful partnership. Look out for further updates coming soon.