The drive there was stunning; as we ascended the mountains I thought the views were unbeatable, but project officer Annie kept saying “Just wait till we get to the top!” As we began the hairpin bend descent, the full panoramic view of the lake shore came into view and it was truly breathtaking. The lake was a calm, rich deep blue with white sand and clusters of fishing communities around the edges. After following the lake shore for at least half an hour we turned inland to the rice fields, freshly planted with the irrigated crop of rice, the rain-fed rice having been harvested the previous month. The fields stretched for miles, fed by irrigation channels which had formed part of a government food security programme from the late 1960s.

The Hara rice co-operative has quite a sophisticated set-up with a large processing unit containing storage facilities, hulling and grading machinery along with a cleaning and packaging section. The rice currently being processed was the Kilombero variety, a long grain rice that differs in size from the other rounder grained Hara rice. The co-operative vice-chair explained that there was not that much difference in the flavour of the two varieties, but said that when cooking, both varieties have a distinctive aroma that sets them apart from other types of rice.

After a tour of the processing unit, we met with co-operative members, board members and staff in the shade of a mango tree, where they told us about how in the past they had received assistance from both the EU and USAID to develop their buildings and purchase the sophisticated machinery necessary to standardise their products. They had also been supported to take on employees to strengthen the society, with the long-term aim to independently fund the staff team within 3 years. However, there was much discussion around how this was a struggle and the extent to which the transition from receiving grants to self-sufficiency was challenging. This led on to a broader conversation about planning diversification strategies and value-addition, as well as how to go about securing new markets.

One issue that came up through the course of the meeting was the fact that there are 153 co-operative members, of which 87 are women, yet only 3 of the 9 board members are women. John and Annie suggested that before the next AGM in September they should run some sessions on gender equity and women’s capacity building training for leadership. John emphasised that as women form the majority of the membership, they have the responsibility to ensure they have representation on the board. This has also been a big focus of our work across Malawi, with the number of women in leadership positions within co-operatives up by over 10% since the college started delivering these training programmes in the country.

Keep an eye out for the next Malawi blog as we are now heading back down to Lilongwe to visit Kusamala, the project partners in the College’s William Jackson Food Group project, and also visiting a coffee and a dairy co-operative in the central region.