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Presenter: Welcome, listener, to (name of program), which comes to you every (name of day) on your radio station. As usual you are with me, (name of broadcaster).
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Presenter: Dear listeners, today we have the true story of Ngolowindo Co-operative, or the “ever smiling tomato,” as the co-operative is known. The story covers the co-operative’s coming into being, the mountains it is climbing, and the main strengths that contributed to its success. What are some of the problems the co-operative members have survived in the past 27 years? Are they going to survive the serious challenges they are facing? These are the questions we will explore in our program today.
(Pause) Ngolowindo is situated in the Central Region of Malawi, about 10 kilometres east of Salima. I have visited Ngolowindo Co-operative a number of times. It is an enterprising co-operative, with a lot of resources and potential, some of which you will hear about during the following interview. Let me hand you over to our reporter, who will chat with the president of the co-operative.
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Reporter: Greetings, Madam. I am Gladson Makowa. I would like to talk with you to learn about your co-operative. Could you kindly introduce yourself?
Eluby: My name is Eluby Tseke.
Reporter: What position do you hold in the Ngolowindo Co-operative?
Eluby: I am the president of the Ngolowindo Co-operative.
Reporter: When did Ngolowindo start?
Eluby: As an irrigation scheme, it started in 1984. But as a co-operative, it started in 2001.
Reporter: How did the irrigation scheme start?
Eluby: It came together like any other development project that governments implement. It started with the District Assembly. The Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, as it was called in those years, started the project. They visited the Traditional Authority to brief him, and then they briefed all village headmen about the project. The European Union contributed some money and the Government of Malawi managed the project.
Reporter: How did the idea of growing into a co-operative come about?
Eluby: In 1998, the Department of Irrigation handed over the irrigation scheme to the people. So we continued working on our own. Then we received some visitors from Bunda College. After seeing how hard-working and united we were, they advised us to transform our project into either a co-operative or an association. They advised us to call the Ministry of Industry and Trade and ask them to come and teach us about co-operatives and associations.
Reporter: What did you choose?
Eluby: We chose to be a co-operative. We had heard that a co-operative is a group which is formed by people according to their own wishes, with everyone’s needs and problems being treated equally. Members of a co-operative contribute finances together as capital, and put together their mind, interest and time. Whether the co-operative makes a profit or loss, they all share. So the people unanimously voted to become a co-operative.
Reporter: What is the secret behind your co-operative’s success and your group’s long life of more than 25 years?
Eluby: The organization has stayed together this long because it fulfills the needs of the people. Also, we have different committees which look after different issues in the co-operative.
Reporter: What are these committees?
Eluby: We have a management committee, and under this we have sub-committees such as irrigation, marketing, discipline, credit, education, and asset sub-committees.
Reporter: What are the duties of these sub-committees?
Eluby: The assets sub-committee looks after all the co-operative’s tools and equipment. It rents out tools and makes sure that all equipment is returned. The discipline sub-committee enforces rules and order among the members.
Reporter: What rules do you have in the co-operative?
Eluby: Thou shall not steal. If found stealing, members are dismissed. Thou shall not commit adultery. We are trying to prevent the spread of the HIV and AIDS pandemic among members. We make sure that no one is found having sex with a fellow member in the group. If you are found in this act, you are dismissed.
Reporter: Do you mean that marrying a fellow member is prohibited?
Eluby: No. But we do not want promiscuity in our group. If a married man is found with an unmarried or married woman, both are dismissed. Or if a married woman is found with another married man or an unmarried man, they are dismissed. We do not want the co-operative to be a source of HIV and AIDS or to end people’s marriages.
Reporter: Do people like these rules?
Eluby: Yes, they are happy. And they are the ones who made these rules. These are some of the rules that sustain our co-operative.
Reporter: What is the duty of the marketing sub-committee?
Eluby: The marketing sub-committee buys the crops which the co-operative members grow, and then sells them to our markets.
Reporter: How does the sub-committee find markets?
Eluby: Markets are sometimes found before we start farming, and sometimes when the crops are about to mature. We agree before the farming season starts on how much land and how much quantity of each crop we will grow, and who shall buy from us.
Reporter: Other farmers are finding it difficult to find markets. How do you manage?
Eluby: We manage because many major buyers are familiar with us. They know us and they know that we produce very good quality fruits and vegetables.
Reporter: Are there any differences between farmers who are co-operative members and those who are not members?
Eluby: Oh yes, there are many differences. Members receive good profits, which help them to buy and sustain their homes. Sometimes we have poor rains and people harvest less food in a year and have no money. When this happens, we are able to support them to plant and grow more food and earn money by using a fund which consists of profits made from selling winter crops,
Reporter: If a member fails to produce enough in the winter cropping season due to unforeseen problems, do you have insurance that covers such problems?
Eluby: We have never had problems to the extent that farmers default on loan payments. They always manage to pay back all loans.
Reporter: Oh, so you have loans and credit!
Eluby: Yes. The credit committee manages loans. This committee distributes loans and collects the repayments from members.
Reporter: What kind of loans?
Eluby: The co-operative buys inputs in bulk to benefit from quantity discounts. Then it gives these inputs to our members as a loan. We deduct the loan repayments during harvest time. We also give loans to purchase electricity to pump water. We installed electrical pumps under the ground to pump out water. The co-op must pay the water charges every month. This electricity charge for pumping water is also deducted from farmers as a loan repayment.
Reporter: How do you collect the money to pay for electricity?
Eluby: We charge per ridge. We plan every year how many hectares we are going to assign to each and every crop. For example, if we plan to grow two hectares of tomatoes, we charge a fixed amount of money per ridge. Each ridge is 100 metres long.
Reporter: How much is the electricity charge per ridge?
Eluby: Currently, we charge 650 Malawian kwacha per ridge, which is about four US dollars per ridge.
Reporter: Earlier when I came to visit Ngolowindo, you told me that your major problem was the high cost of electricity. How are things now with electricity charges?
Eluby: High electricity tariffs are still our major problem. We are still requesting the government to promptly finish the negotiations with the electricity supplier so that we can receive a subsidy on electricity prices. Our bills are still very high.
Reporter: How much do you pay per month?
Eluby: When we use only one pump, we pay about 125,000 kwacha per month (Editor’s note: approximately $US820).
Reporter: How much per month do you collect from the members?
Eluby: We do not collect per month but per harvest, about every three months for irrigated crops. Irrigated crops are harvested every three months during the dry season. Then, we collect not less than 300,000 kwacha per harvest (Editor’s note: approximately $US2000).
Reporter: Is 300,000 kwacha enough to pay for the entire electricity bill?
Eluby: This is not enough. We manage to pay for the whole electricity bill only when we grow high-value crops like tomatoes. But we lose money when we use these pumps to water maize. Maize does not give high returns compared to high-value crops like tomatoes.
Reporter: The co-operative has lasted for a long time without collapsing from these high electricity tariffs. Who supports you?
Eluby: With the help of the government, we are still negotiating with the company that supplies the electricity. The electricity supply company is saying that we should enter into an agreement. They say that they can charge us a reduced rate if we agree to use electricity at night only.
Reporter: When are you going to sign this agreement?
Eluby: We are waiting for the Department of Irrigation to finish the negotiations on our behalf.
Reporter: Do you have any employees to whom you pay a salary?
Eluby: Yes, we have a number of them – a driver, a cashier, a stores clerk, and two watchmen.
Reporter: If you have a driver, it means you have a car. How did you obtain it?
Eluby: There was an Italian non-governmental organization between 2002 and 2004 called Co-operation for the Development of Emerging Countries, which was funded by the European Union. The project provided a pick-up truck for us.
Reporter: What else did this NGO help you with?
Eluby: They bought us the vehicle; they built a storage warehouse, a cold room, dug one well and installed a pump. They enlarged the water storage tank and expanded the area of irrigated plots with canals from 14 hectares to 17. They also trained us for six months on co-operative management. The project lasted for three years.
Reporter: How do you make sure that your water expenditures are in line with your income?
Eluby: We collect the money from farmers during the time when the crops are sold. Usually, we agree on the buying price with members before they grow the crops. The price at which we buy their crops is set by the co-operative. The price is a bit lower than our real market price. That’s because the funds that the co-operative uses to pay its employees and other overhead costs are deducted off the top. We also deduct the cost of electricity, inputs and other purchases off the top.
Reporter: Can you give us an example of the prices you pay farmers and your selling prices at other markets?
Eluby: Our selling prices depend on demand at the market. But we try to make sure that we sell at a higher price than the other traders. For example, if we have a market which buys from us at 80 kwacha per kilogram, we might buy from the farmer at 60 kwacha. We buy using a weighing scale and pay per kilogram, while other small traders just guess the prices. Farmers know that we are fairer than the other vendors. We do not bargain; we have fixed prices. We buy everything from our members and then plan what to do with the crops later. Other vendors just buy enough for themselves, as much as they can manage.
Reporter: You talked about farmer loans. How different are your loans from other bank loans?
Eluby: We buy things in bulk and cheaply. At that cheap buying price, we charge 15% interest, while the banks charge between 25 and 35%. Mind you, we only give loans to our members.
Reporter: Are the members benefiting from this deal?
Eluby: The farmers are happy. Some have built houses, bought livestock, paid for secondary school fees for their children and other dependents, and enjoyed many more benefits.
Reporter: If people are indeed enjoying the membership, how many members do you have?
Eluby: We are 145 members, and we have 25 applicants whose applications we are scrutinizing.
Reporter: What qualifications do you look for in a member?
Eluby: We do not want those who have been convicted of theft, or those who suffer from epilepsy. We have a water tank which is always open and we have big water canals, so we do not want any accidents with people with epilepsy. We want hard-working people. We know them, because they are the people with whom we live in our villages.
Reporter: If members have lost their loved ones and have a problem, how are they supported?
Eluby: We have a social welfare account to which all members contribute. This account helps those who have big problems, like the funeral of a close relative such as a child, husband or wife. We have both Christian and Muslim members. We support members according to their faith.
Reporter: What are the major problems which the co-operative is facing?
Eluby: Currently, all three pumps in our three wells are down. Therefore, this year we have not yet seriously started irrigated farming. We have planted, but there is a shortage of water because the irrigation pumps are broken. We are still searching for new pumps. This is the scariest problem that we have ever faced. Remember that we spend much of our income on high electricity tariffs, and we are still negotiating with the electricity supplier to reduce these charges. Also, we do not have stable buyers who can purchase all of our products. We have some buyers, but we need more markets. And the markets which we have found do not offer opportunities for contract farming. Those are our major problems.
Reporter: If you have not seriously started farming this year, what will you do to make sure that you grow some winter crops?
Eluby: We took the pumps to electricians and mechanics, but they told us that they are worn out completely, and that we just need to replace them. We want to buy new ones before the irrigation season ends. We are still discussing this in our group.
Reporter: The government buys pumps for other small-scale farmers … how has it helped you?
Eluby: They have not yet helped us. Maybe they are still looking at how they can help.
Reporter: How much do pumps cost at the market?
Eluby: A small durable pump sells for 300,000 kwacha ($US2000). Big ones like the ones which we use sell for around 800,000 kwacha (US5250).
Reporter: Are you going to grow any irrigated crops this year?
Eluby: Our winter season starts in February. We planted tomatoes in February, but they have not done well because of the water shortage. Right now, we are still coming up with ways to find a pump.
Reporter: Do you have sufficient funds in the account of your co-operative to survive?
Eluby: I will not reveal the amount, but the co-operative is not ending. We are still meeting and coming up with ways to sort out the water pump problem. We will try to negotiate with some companies to pay a deposit and pay the rest later. That is one of the options we have.
Reporter: But at least you have enough money to pay the deposit to a company – is that correct?
Eluby: The money we have is enough to pay a deposit for a smaller pump, but we feel that is not a good choice for a big garden like ours. We need a bigger one. That is why I say we are still looking for other options.
Reporter: Can fuel pumps work?
Eluby: No, not at all. They cannot do the work we need. Our wells are 70 metres deep, so the fuel pumps cannot manage it. Even if they could, they might be more expensive to run.
Reporter: Finally, what are you going to do to make sure that Ngolowindo, the ever smiling tomato, continues to smile, as your motto says?
Eluby: I just encourage all the members to remain united, and contribute to the purchase of the needed pump, so we can continue enjoying the good life which we have been enjoying. I also call upon well-wishers to help us in this problem.
Reporter: Thank you for sparing this time for us. Today we have heard and learned from Mrs. Eluby Tsekwe of Ngolowindo Co-operative in Salima, Malawi on what is involved in running co-operatives, and about the advantages and some of the challenges which they face.
Do not forget that in co-operatives you share ideas, gains and losses. As old wise men say, many heads are better than one, and it is better to join a group where you can learn something. Form clubs and improve your bargaining power and knowledge. You were with me, your reporter, Gladson Makowa.