• Phiri's example of building an agricultural enterprise is resonating with many women
• It also represents a growing shift in the region in food trade
When Lucy Phiri's husband died in 2015, she was stuck. In need of an income, she thought about what skills she could call on.
"I was now the head of the family and breadwinner. This prompted me to go into agricultural training because it is the sector in which I have a lot of experience because we are farmers in my family," she said.
Leaning in to what she knew, she began enrolling in agricultural training programmes offered by government to help smallholder farmers.
The training is designed not only to help farmers produce crops but also to see themselves as part of a crucial food supply chain, and to help them access commercial markets.
The training examines aspects such as hygiene, production methods, crop quality and traceability through tight record-keeping.
Phiri began a food garden on her family's three-acre plot, and then started selling the produce by vending at markets.
It wasn't long before she began vending other farmer's produce, too. Then she ventured into large-scale contract farming, starting at 5am at her food garden, and at 10am, switching to her vending work.
"I was putting money aside for several months, and it had accumulated. I invested it in agribusiness, where I ventured into planting rice, soya beans, sugar beans and maize in my small plots," Phiri said.
Speaking at the 2023 Zimbabwe International Trade Fair, where she was included in a delegation from Malawi, she said she entered into a partnership deal with 20 peasant farmers in Lilongwe.
"We would offer them rice, soya, maize seedlings, fertilisers and insecticides, and all farmers have released at least an acre each for this project," she said.
"I am grateful for the farming training I received from the government and NGOs because it opened my eyes to see agriculture as a business."
Regional agricultural trade is proving to be an increasingly important lifeline across Africa as supply chains are rocked by global events and an unpredictable climate. Phiri has received support not only from the Malawian government but also a regional women's initiative.
"Through the government of Malawi's initiative to empower women in business, I was able to exhibit and do business in Kenya, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, mostly under the banner of Comesa-Federation of Women in Business," she said.
Phiri's annual crop, of between 60 and 90 tonnes of rice and 100 to 120 tonnes of sugar beans, will not on its own bring a major change to food trade in the region. But Phiri is representative of a growing army of food entrepreneurs who collectively are beginning to change food trading patterns across Africa.
At the trade fair, Malawi's First Secretary for Trade, Charity Mlombwa, praised Zimbabwe for assisting Malawian enterprises to learn how other traders in the region operate and how to reach markets across Southern Africa.
Phiri is now an inspiration to many women in her district, and people from diverse sectors in Lilongwe have flocked to hear about her success story.
"As we speak, I am returning to Bulawayo towards the end of August 2023 to open a shop for my agricultural products. I don't take my experience at ZITF for granted; it actually opened opportunities for me in Zimbabwe, and I now have a greater understanding of the market," Phiri said.
"At long last, I've been able to realise my dream because rice and sugar beans are in high demand in regional markets. I can easily make some few thousand dollars in net income every year."
The agricultural entrepreneur has been able to send her children to the best schools after covering all of her expenses, and her firstborn is studying abroad.
"Agribusiness has given me hope for a better future for my children," she said.