"At Mzuzu, our farmers mean business."
Farmers in the northern and central mountainous regions of Malawi have been harvesting coffee since the early 1930s, but Mzuzu are determined to keep modernising and improving their practices.
The cooperative has an extensive training programme to promote better farming practices, and in recent years has started to focus on gender justice to empower and motivate women farmers. Their efforts have paid off: in the Taste of Harvest 2017, their lots won positions 1 to 3 and 5 to 9.
Mzuzu Coffee Planters Cooperative Union Limited is made up of 6 member cooperatives spread out over a large area covering Northern and Central Malawi: Misuku Hills in Chitipa district, Phoka Hills in Rumphi district, Viphya North in Rumphi, Nkhatabay Highlands, South East Mzimba and Ntchisi East, and Usungini farm, which is owned and run by the union. Throughout the Union, field staff offer farmers training on sustainable agriculture techniques, quality and processing, and provide microfinance loans to buy seeds.
In 2017, Mzuzu's lots won positions 1 to 3 and 5 to 9 in the Taste of Harvest. They also had great success at the Microlot Bean Auction, which they pioneered in 2016, by increasing their number of buyers from 2 to 3 and the volume sold from 1.56MT to 3.96MT.
Coffee grown by women
Since 2012, Mzuzu have run a "women in coffee" programme to empower women farmers and increase their personal income by selling 'coffee grown by women' to buyers all over the world. In 2015, within 3 years of launching the scheme, 58MT of coffee grown by women was available for sale. The women's coffee premium goes back to the farmer, and also funds women's activities run by the Union and a scheme for small loans.
Martha Mhango was elected Chairperson of Nkhonthwa zone in 2016, and is a firm advocate of the women's coffee premium:
"By selling coffee I have been able to buy more for the house and an iron roof, and we are saving up to get electricity. I want to change the old culture, so that women take an active role in growing coffee and in receiving income from it.”
In order to increase the union’s income, Mzuzu invested in a coffee farm, Usingini, in 2011. The farm is expected to have about 600,000 coffee trees (240ha) and producing around 350MT of green beans. The profit will be redistributed to the members.
The union also owns the Coffee Den, a coffee shop selling Mzuzu’s coffee in the town, which provides an internet service and sells souvenirs, and the Coffee Suites, a guest house. The Union also harvests other cash crops in addition to coffee, such as banana and beans.
Reducing water stress and increasing soil fertility is essential for farmers in Malawi, so a range of training and activities are being implemented at Mzuzu, such as intercropping shade plants with coffee trees. The construction of a composting plant in 2014, with the support of Twin, has also been a recent successful innovation for the cooperative Phoka, certified organic: farmers deliver their waste coffee pulp for composting, and it is then available for sale at reduced prices to members. The compost has a better balance of nutrients than chemical fertilizers and has helped increase yield to around 5kg cherry per tree (previously as low as 1kg).