Seeds of Resilience in Malawi

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Martha Nkhoma and Mary Banda

“Over the years, I have learned persistence. And persistence has become a way of life…”

Martha Nkhoma is a founding member of African Women in Agribusiness, an association of women seed company entrepreneurs who have joined together to form a single, more competitive entity that can produce and sell affordable, high-protein, drought-resilient local seed. These entrepreneurs need funds to purchase their growers’ harvest, including the seed produced by Mary Banda, a farmer from Chiphamba Village, Kasungu District, Malawi. From lenders’ perspective, however, AWAB has three strikes against it: it is a new business, it is owned and run by women of color, and it relies on smallholder farmers as suppliers as well as customers. Shared Interest is working with AWAB to overcome banks’ risk aversion and bias, and obtain the capital it needs to scale its seed business and serve tens of thousands of Malawian farmers.


Martha Nkhoma is firmly committed to her family’s future – and that of her four surviving children, including the two she has adopted.  Her commitment is reflected in the name of her company – Virelishama –which is formed from the names of her children. Like all the members of AWAB, Martha’s company produces basic and certified seed: she provides smallholder farmers with the seed they use to grow the next generation, and then buys back their harvest.

AWAB focuses on legumes – crops like soybeans, cowpeas, pigeon peas, and peanuts – which are mostly grown by women. These crops are drought-tolerant, nutritious, and in high demand. The process of producing seed for sale to farmers consists of four steps:

  1. AWAB purchases first generation breeder seed from local research institutions, which maintain seed banks of locally-bred varieties that cater to traditional preferences, such as taste and storability.

  2. The breeder seed is then given to women smallholder farmers, who plant it, producing basic seed, which is then purchased by AWAB.

  3. AWAB distributes this basic seed again among its network of smallholder growers, who plant it, this time harvesting certified seed, which AWAB also purchases.

  4. AWAB cleans, processes, and packages the certified seed, which is inspected by the government seed agency, and then sells it to farmers, who use it to produce grain, the final product for processing and consumption.

Establishing this seed-to-grain value chain is designed to enable the women’s companies and their smallholder growers to control their production process and enter new markets – establishing a foundation for income growth, improved nutrition, and economic empowerment for rural women in a time of severe climate change.  (Droughts come to Malawi now one year in every four.) At the same time, the members of AWAB – entrepreneurs with small seed companies – are receiving technical support and mentoring each other. More established entrepreneurs, like Martha Nkhoma, and her colleagues Grace Malindi and Kamia Sulumba, are mentoring younger seed company owners, like Stella Chuti. As Martha Nkhoma says, “Empowerment starts with ourselves […] As we go, we will take up others.”


Access to seed is particularly important for farmers like Mary Banda, shown in the photograph above with Martha Nkhoma. Women small-holder farmers face multiple challenges, lacking access to good seed, fertilizer, extension services, markets and information on the latest products and developments in the field.  They especially need access to finance – an issue partially addressed by AWAB members, who provide breeder and basic seed on credit. They supply their members and then deduct the cost from harest earnings. They also connect some of them to microfinance institutions that provide small amounts of credit to purchase inputs, such as the Microloan Foundation, whose clients include Ms. Banda. 

Through field officers, AWAB and its member companies provide training to the farmers who produce and purchase their seed. AWAB focuses on hiring field officers trained specifically in seed sciences, to ensure the seed meets the rigorous quality requirements of the government’s seed services unit, which not only inspects seed at the time of certification, but also conducts visits to farmers’ fields before planting and during the growing season. In Malawi, this has meant that the vast majority of seed production has typically been done by large commercial farms, which have the resources and expertise to meet these requirements, and too often exclude smallholder farmers from the market. AWAB is opening up new opportunities and breaking new ground by contracting with small-scale farmers to produce varieties of seed that have, in the past, only been produced by large farms. This provides new, more lucrative income opportunities for smallholder farmers, while ensuring that local varieties – which are so frequently neglected by the companies that dominate the market in Malawi – are produced at scale. These local varieties are better adapted to local disease pressure and climate conditions. In total, AWAB members contract with over 1,300 smallholder farmers, providing opportunities for greatly increased incomes as well as a reliable, fair market for their crops.


Despite most AWAB members’ long history working in the agriculture sector and their indisputable business-savvy, obtaining credit has not been easy. AWAB initially pursued two strategies: first, they considered seeking a loan for Martha Nkhoma alone, as her assets, combined with a guarantee, could make her “bankable,” and (2) going as a group , including Martha Nkhoma, by pursuing a loan for AWAB as an entity, which would then on-lend to its members to buy back the seed produced by their respective growers. Ultimately, AWAB has chosen the second strategy as its preferred route. Shared Interest has provided AWAB with technical support to prepare the organization to borrow, including advice on establishing joint and several liability, assistance negotiating with the organization’s preferred lender, preparation of required due diligence materials, and support establishing and maintaining effective governance structures. These non-financial services are critical to AWAB’s ability to obtain the loan it needs to purchase seed from its growers and to its long-term organizational success and sustainability. Upon obtaining a loan to buy seed, AWAB plans to purchase as much as 1,800 tons of seed, which we calculate could supply up to 90,000 farmers, helping them increase their yields, adapt to a changing climate, and provide nutritious food for their families.