transformation through collaboration, consortium, and commitment

A word diagram from the WhatsApp conference group

 

The last week of November, approximately five hours before my flight left from DC to Lilongwe, I opened my suitcase and began to pack. Some may argue that sprinting around with literal moments to spare may not be the most prudent way to prepare for a week abroad. However, I was too excited; I was travelling to Malawi for the Agricultural Transformation Initiative’s (ATI) first annual Agricultural Transformation Summit.

The ATI is an arm of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World that works to enable smallholder farmers in tobacco-dependent countries to diversify from tobacco dependency toward alternative, profitable livelihoods. As one of the most tobacco-dependent economies in the world, where tobacco accounts for over 60% of the country’s total annual earnings, Malawi is the ideal place for the ATI to get started. Integral to the ATI is the understanding that all ATI work will be a collaborative effort among every key stakeholder.

On December 4 and 5, more than 150 engaged and excited participants from the farming sector, including smallholder farmers and tobacco leaf companies, the private sector, government, banks, investment advisors, universities, and many more attended the ATI’s inaugural summit. These key stakeholders, led by exhilarating journalist turned moderator Femi Oke, came together to thoughtfully discuss not just the issues we face as we work toward agricultural diversification in Malawi, but also the exciting possibilities and solutions therein. You can find the full summit agenda here.

From left, Agricultural Transformation Summit host and moderator Femi Oke; Prince Kapondamgaga, CEO of Farmers Union of Malawi; Dr. Alexander Bulirani, Controller of Agriculture Services, Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development; and Jose Maria Costa, Executive Vice Present of Pyxus.

We’ve all been to conferences where halfway through day two, you’ve experienced “death by panel.” Yet this summit escaped conference monotony through a few key elements:

  • Real Solutions. We focused on practical, real-world solutions that will empower and include smallholder farmers—particularly women farmers—and all of Malawi as the country stares down transformational change. We heard about the decline in tobacco demand from the tobacco industry themselves. We discussed opportunities in structured trade, the importance of cutting-edge science and technology, and the way spatial analysis can affect smallholder livelihoods. Investment advisors delved into investment opportunities and inclusive business models. We engaged in deep thinking and discussion concerning digital financial services, the essential role of youth and entrepreneurship, and the business case for diversification. For every problem, there was open, honest discussion of potential solutions.
  • True Collaboration. When I say, “we discussed,” I don’t mean the panelists and moderators presented to a politely listening crowd. Invitations were scattered all throughout the conference hall, encouraging attendees to join the conference online via WhatsApp (a free messaging app). By day two, more than 75% of the conference participants were logged on and actively engaging in discussion and debate, allowing for unique perspective sharing. We discussed value addition, raised the importance of nutrition, debated terms like “agri-preneur” (an entrepreneur who has promising agricultural ventures) and “smallholder farmer” (a farmer with a small parcel of land), deliberated about female empowerment, and listed the many ways people can get involved in the agricultural sector beyond farming, the difficulties of structured trade, and much more. Moderators would read questions from WhatsApp, and afterwards panelists would get real-time feedback on what the audience wanted to discuss. I could write another three pages on the invigorating discussions we had on WhatsApp alone.
  • Vast Opportunities. Throughout the conference, every few hours there would be a break in discussion and an announcement would be made. The ATI announced:
    • The winner of a competitive selection process for a center of excellence in Malawi—the Center for Agricultural Transformation, to be launched in 2019, which will focus on science, technology, and innovation, as well as business incubation and commercialization.
    • A new Challenge Fund on digital financial services for smallholder farmers, with requests for proposals being accepted starting later this month.
    • A brand new scholarship fund for Lilongwe University of Agriculture & Natural Resources (LUANAR).
    • Opportunities for firms to bid on new funding to design a youth Agri-Preneur Accelerator Program, or to bid through the ATI Open Grant Window for a catalytic private sector grant. The ATI pulled out the checkbook and made firm commitments.

I left the summit feeling invigorated and excited at the prospects next year will bring to Malawi. After engaging collaboratively with farmers, government, the private sector, and so many more interested stakeholders, I’m confident together we can join forces to develop real, practical solutions. See you at the summit next year?

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