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Potatoes in Malawi, Africa

A photo gallery of Joe's trip can be viewed on the Spudman Facebook fan page here.

She grew the potatoes, carried them to the factory and processed them into crisps.

I saw her carry a bag of potatoes to the processing plant at 7 a.m. I was at a Malawi, Africa, potato growers’ cooperative in October when Grace Phiri of Maonga Village gracefully walked to the building with a bag of potatoes on her head. We found out later that the potatoes weighed 136 pounds. Grace is petite and weighs less than that. Amazing.

Grace is one of 80 potato growers in the Biriwiri Farmers and Marketing Cooperative Society (BIFAM), headquartered is in Ntcheu, a small town near the Mozambique border. Gift Kapesi, from the village of Kasamba, and several other farmers founded the cooperative in 2005. Like potato farmers around the world, they wanted to gain market power.

With a grant from the Japanese One Village One Product program, BIFAM purchased potato processing equipment from an Indian firm. I was in Malawi as a volunteer on a USDA Farmer-to-Farmer project to provide advice to BIFAM on postharvest handling, storage and marketing.

Potatoes are important to farmers and consumers in Malawi. Although Malawi is a tiny country with a population of only 14 million, it is the 17th largest potato-producing country in the world. Everywhere I looked in the Ntcheu area I saw potato fields, potatoes moving to markets and potatoes being sold. Potato fry vendors did a brisk business from sunrise until well past sunset.

Growers in the Ntcheu area can grow four crops per year, but irrigation is needed in the dry season, August through October. The growers call the irrigated fields their “garden” fields. They are planted in low areas where there is surface water they haul to the fields in buckets. During the rainy season, potatoes are grown everywhere.

Malawi potato growers don’t have access to machinery or draft animals. The only power in their fields is human power. They use one tool – a hoe – to prepare the soil, cultivate and dig the potatoes. Transportation is with human power, too, unless they can get to a highway where they can go longer distances by bus.

Growers in the Ntcheu area take their fresh potatoes to Tsangano Market, which is several miles from town along the border with Mozambique. Farmers arrive with bags of potatoes weighing 100-150 pounds. Tsangano middlemen buy from the farmers and pack potatoes in 500-pound bags for shipment by truck to the bigger cities. The middlemen hire local laborers to load their trucks. It takes three strong people to lift a 500-pound bag onto a truck.

The Tsangano market is a long, open-air strip along the highway where all kinds of food products are sold every day of the week. It is the heart of the local economy, which is definitely based on agriculture.

Five years ago, Malawi was one of the 10 poorest nations in the world and food security was a serious problem. Hunger, malnutrition and starvation were realities. While those threats have not gone away, the Malawi economy has grown an average of 10 percent in each of the last five years. Some people refer to the economic development as the Malawi Miracle.

I found it fascinating that free markets and potatoes are important parts of the Malawi Miracle. Hard-working farmers like Grace Phiri, Gift Kapesi and the other BIFAM members are the vital core of the Malawi economy.

Joe Guenthner is an agricultural economist with the University of Idaho in Moscow.

Originally posted Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009

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