This feature was produced by Malawian journalist James Chavula, and was first published in The Business Review section of The Nation (Malawi) on July 27, 2017.
The Chinese-built Bingu Highway, which connects Karonga and Chitipa in northern Malawi, is reshaping business prospects of coffee farmers long left behind.
It was rainy in Misuku Hills when we visited Chitipa District in May. The showers were beating the leaves of coffee trees and other crops to naked stalks, with rivulets racing towards valleys that adorn the picturesque plateau in the northern border strip.
As raindrops hammered rooftops, it was not unduly surprising that the journey from the shoreline district of Karonga to Misuku, which used to take almost six hours five years ago, now spans just about two.
A Chinese-built tarmac between Karonga and Chitipa has replaced the beaten, rocky road that once delayed progress of these industrious farmers in the border region between Malawi and Tanzania as it perilously wound across steep slopes that typify the mountainous terrain.
In the dew-covered forests, we met Giveness Bikwa Masebo hard at work in a half-acre coffee field. She has been doing this for a decade, earning enough to sustain her family of six, pay fees for school-going children, build a four-bedroom house, buy cattle and save “a small fortune”.
“I can’t imagine life away from coffee,” said the farmer who produces about 300kgs. “Maybe my family would be starving and wearing rags. But we would have been richer if Chitipa had a good road 10 years ago. We were producing less. It was difficult to find inputs and transport the produce.”
Farmers in Malawi’s largest coffee producing district no longer sell their produce cheaply as was the case when nearly impassable roads left them with poor access to markets.
For decades, unscrupulous traders from within and neighbouring countries took advantage of poor roads to procure and smuggle the rare Arabica coffee for peanuts.
“Misuku is endowed with fertile soils and hardworking farmers, but some are so poor that they cannot afford processed coffee from their own fields,” said Senior Chief Mwenemisuku.
The area also produces maize, beans, bananas, citrus fruits and cassava and avocado pears which are benefitting from the wide tar, named Bingu wa Mutharika Highway.
“It’s pathetic these dedicated farmers were getting poorer while crooked buyers were getting richer. They had no say over their produce. Buyers were dictating prices,” bemoaned the traditional leader in an interview.
He perceives the $70 million tarmac, opened in 2013, as a lifeline to parts of the Northern Region and neighbouring countries where they mostly sell their surplus.
The World Bank has further unlocked the rain-streaked food basket by modernising the 40km Kapoka-Misuku earth road through the Agricultural Sector-wide Approach (Aswap). Slippery slopes have been sealed with concrete and the almost 35km journey which used to span almost 90 minutes now takes just about 45 minutes.
Moving global goods
Just like that, the global trip of the washed Arabica coffee, including one-off Geisha variety, gets off to a less turbulent take-off than ever before.
Misuku is the largest source of Mzuzu Coffee which Mzuzu Coffee Planters Cooperative Union (MCPCU) exports to the United States of America, United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Taiwan and South America.
Nearly 3 000 farmers in the remote, lushly forested hills produce almost half of the coffee marketed by the union. The rest comes from Phoka Hills in Rumphi and Nkhata Bay Highlands as well as North Viphya and Khosolo in Mzimba.
MCPCU head of operations Bernard Kaunda said moving fertilisers, pesticides, tools and other inputs to the farmers has become easier following the modernisation of the 93km Karonga-Chitipa Road.
Also easing is the hardship of transporting processed coffee to Mzuzu, almost 330km away.
“Previously, the challenge of carrying 30 tonnes of coffee from Kapoka to Karonga was immense. Transporters were either refusing or charging exorbitant prices as the trip was often marred by breakdowns and massive wear tear,” said Kaunda.
He was excited with “substantial cutbacks” on time and costs.
“The costs have fallen following the intervention of the Chinese who constructed the tarmac. The trip takes fewer hours and more transporters are willing to go to Misuku They now accept standard prices,” he explained.
Access to farm inputs and extension services is improving as scores of suppliers have embraced the hilly locality as a new business destination, farmers say.
To the planters striving to churn out high quality coffee, the truckloads of the export produce leaving the plateau confirm that they now sell it with dignity, knowledge and swiftness.
The Roads Authority (RA) spokesperson Portia Kajanga is upbeat that the construction of the long-awaited tarmac has tremendously reduced travel time farmers for Chitipa and Karonga North West.
She said: “It is incredible that the journey which used to take over four hours now takes about 90 minutes. With the completion of Karonga-Chitipa Road, small-scale businesses are flourishing; banks are mushrooming in the district where there was none. Farmers are also singing a new song due to enhanced access to markets and farm inputs.”
However, the publicist of the State-run authority gave no answer when asked why almost 230 000 Malawians in the border strip had to wait for 51 years to get a decent road.
Chinese Ambassador Wang Shiting was similarly noncommittal.
His government took over the project after Lilongwe terminated its ties with Taiwan in December 2007.
His political aide said the ambassador considers the positive voices from Chitipa and Karonga “a very important story” of its diplomatic ties between Lilongwe and Beijing which his predecessor Lin Songtian branded “win-win cooperation”.
Minister of Transport Jappie Mhango underscored the importance of good roads to unlock agricultural communities as the sector accounts for 80 percent of jobs in the country.
In an interview, he said: “First and foremost, the modernisation of Karonga-Chitipa testifies to the good relationship between the people of Malawi and China.
“It also signals our belief that good roads are key to economic transformation of the country. This is why after Karonga-Chitipa Road, government paved Kapoka-Misuku Road as well.”
More than markets
It is unmistakable that improved roads are changing livelihoods and businesses in Chitipa, says district commissioner Grace Chirwa.
“Chitipa is an agricultural zone, a food basket for the North. The new road has not only opened up markets for farm inputs and produce, but also the know-how. Now the farmers have increased access to modern farming methods and technologies,” she explained.
Just last year, Chitipa shipped surplus maize to nourish Karonga residents at the height of a drought-related food crisis which affected almost three million Malawians.
Chief Mwaulambya still remembers the days farmers in Chitipa used to grow low-yielding and slow-maturing local varieties due to unavailability of modern seed.
He says: “We used to struggle to get recommended, high-yielding seed and fertilisers. We were equally unlucky when selling our produce. We were toiling in vain,” says.
He is upbeat that the grim days travellers, including farmers and businesspersons, used to spend all day travelling are over.
Now, he looks forward to a more prosperous future.
Declared Mwaulambya: “For us, there is only one way—upwards. Presently, we get most of the goods and services locally. If we have to travel to Karonga, the journey takes just an hour or two. Besides, we get where we are going and back without getting dirty, tired and late. We return fresh, with lots of time and energy to do business.”
This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.