Fishing for Impact in Malawi

“Smallholder farmers have always been unwanted, set up to fail—I wanted to change that,” says Maya Khonje Stewart, co-founder of LenzieMill, Malawi’s only producer of high-quality fish feed. Maya describes herself as a serial social entrepreneur—and with her background in rural distribution, access to energy, and farmer livelihoods—she is familiar with her country’s wide-ranging challenges.

She and her husband, Andrew, established LenzieMill in 2017 to help smallholder poultry farmers move from backyard to semi-commercial farming. LenzieMill focuses exclusively on supplying smallholders with competitively priced, high-quality products. Maya reports, “We have an open-door relationship with our farmers, and they can call us any time. Farmers will call you in the middle of the night to tell you about the problems their chickens are having…they really appreciate that no matter how big or small their problem is, we will support them.”

As she gained experience in poultry feed processing, Maya noticed that Malawi’s lack of local feed production was hurting smallholder fish farmers. Because they could not afford expensive imported feed, their yield and quality were low, and they were undercut by Zambian and South African imports. With demand for fish (especially Malawian chambo) growing every year, Maya believed that the country was “sitting on a major goldmine” if smallholder farmers could be helped to reach their maximum capacity.

After conducting extensive market research, Maya and her husband decided to invest in local fish feed

production. As they had done in the poultry business, they developed a production model to generate demand and ensure farmers a path to profitability. Maya described her disappointing experience with Malawi’s commercial financial institutions. “They only focus on what they are comfortable with.” She approached several banks for asset financing but was turned down. The Investment Support Facility (ISF), one of Shared Interest’s partners in Malawi, helped Maya obtain financing on better terms from a lender that understood the social impact of her business as well as its financial case. Ultimately, a development finance institution, the Malawi Agricultural and Industrial Investment Corporation (MAIIC) was the best fit. With a Shared Interest guarantee, the company was able to secure a $600,000 loan to fund the construction of its new production facility.

“MAICC was excited about our project—and they are already asking us about our future plans.”

Like most businesses, LenzieMill is working hard to negotiate challenges caused by the pandemic. For example, with bank employees working from home since April, the financing took longer than expected. Maya is working with MAIIC to get funds transferred to the UK-based manufacturer producing her equipment, hoping that fabrication will not be delayed by the country’s second lockdown. Fortunately, LenzieMill’s existing business has been relatively stable.

Confident about her ability to succeed in the male-dominated agribusiness sector, Maya reveals that her name is a secret advantage: in Malawi, Maya is used for both boys and girls, so people often assume she is a man until they meet her, and realize she understands the sector.

Right now, what she wants is more opportunities for small-holder farmers. “With cage fish farming, they will be able to harvest once a month instead of once a year, and they can harvest systematically instead of walking hours and hours in the middle of the night looking for fish.” In the meantime, LenzieMill will work to provide all the components farmers need to succeed.

Maya notes, “Once we crack the code of this model, the market will be ready. There will be feed, cages, and fingerlings. Then farmers will come to us, ready to invest…The population is growing, and we will always need fish.”