Monday, June 07, 2010

Powering a Development Idea: OVOP Prospects in a Malawian Village

Until Thandika Mkandawire commented on the launching of the One Village One Product (OVOP) concept on the Malawi Internet listserv Nyasanet in November 2003, I hadn’t heard much about the idea.  So when I heard that a team from the OVOP Secretariat in Malawi’s capital city Lilongwe would be visiting my village in Bwanje, Ntcheu district, on Monday May 31st 2010, I decided to go and see for myself. I was told that the Member of Parliament for the area, Hon. Stevin Stafford Kamwendo (Ntcheu Bwanje North), was also going to be present. The meeting was supposed to start at 11am, but the OVOP team didn’t arrive at the Bwanje Primary School venue until after 2pm. Hon. Kamwendo was supposed to be in parliament back in Lilongwe by 2pm that same day, so when he didn’t show up with the OVOP team, we assumed the delay had made it impossible for him to make the trip.

Members of the Bwanje Agroprocessing Cooperative, who had submitted to the OVOP Secretariat a proposal for a tomato sauce processing plant, told their chairperson to make sure to let the OVOP team know about their displeasure at being kept waiting for more than three hours. When they arrived, the OVOP team explained that Lilongwe was once again experiencing diesel shortages, and it had taken them all morning to find diesel for their vehicle. Their team leader, whose name I wasn’t able to catch, apologized for keeping the people waiting for so long.

The OVOP team’s visit gave me an opportunity to experience an on-the-ground episode in the giant industry that development discourse has become for academics and social justice activists both in the global North and in the global South. In enabled me to not only watch at close quarters but also be a participant on the receiving end of the cyclical process of villagers’ aspirations for development, and a government bureaucracy making key decisions about whether a village will get development, or be denied. And quite serendipitously too, just two days earlier I had seen the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, address the Malawi Parliament in its glitzy new building, accompanied by his special adviser on the Millennium Development Goals, Jeffrey Sachs.

I had expected the OVOP meeting to be a preliminary stage serving the purpose of informing the Bwanje group what the proposal process looked like, what was expected on their part, and the kind of support the OVOP office was going to provide to help the group navigate that process. What I saw was a government procedure that involved quizzing villagers on their market research skills and capacity (or lack thereof) to understand local economics. I also got a glimpse into the potential mass frustration that might likely arise out of the absence of infra-structural investments needed to infuse a tinge of hope into the aspirations of villagers looking up to a government that has promised a new way of doing development. (See more pictures here) But I also saw villagers determined to take charge of their development aspirations, armed with the knowledge of how much tomato their area produces, most of which is sold at very low prices in the high season, and a lot of which also goes to waste due to the perishable nature of the crop. 

The Bwanje Valley area boasts the Lake Shore Road, a Kamuzu-era asphalt route that connects the eastern parts of Ntcheu and Dedza districts, to Salima district and the northern region, along Lake Malawi. But from Bwanje Trading Centre, the nearest source of ESCOM’s electricity is 30 kilometres each away to the south and to the north. On the southern end, the electric grid stops at the magnificent Nachitheme Secondary School, built when Sam Mpasu was the Member of Parliament for Ntcheu Bwanje South. On the northern end, the grid stops at Golomoti, on the border with Dedza district.

I will soon return to the issue of electricity supply and the massive challenges it is causing the entire development agenda that Malawi’s President Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika has set for the country. For now, let me offer a description of how the OVOP meeting at Bwanje Primary School went. I want to explore, in the background, three related issues. First is the nature of the interaction between government officials responsible for important decisions about development, and local area people whose expectations may or may not always match those of the government’s bureaucratic machine. Second is the important question surrounding the promising potential of an initiative such as OVOP, and how much support government officials entrusted with the responsibility of facilitating development offer village communities interested in developing preliminary proposals. Toward the conclusion, I will look at what development initiatives such as these entail in the context of the enormous problems of electricity supply that Malawians stoically live with on a daily basis. In particular, I want to ask how much thought the Malawi presidency has given to the possibility of alternative energy, especially wind and solar power.

Back to the Bwanje Primary School OVOP meeting, the chairperson of the Bwanje Agroprocessing Cooperative, a Mr. Chajula, had prepared a programme for the day. It included speeches from chiefs and area political representatives. The lead person on the OVOP team of three, calling himself an “adviser”, had a different idea. “How about we start with what we came for, and then we can do the formalities later?” (The leader of team introduced himself and his two colleagues, but I wasn’t able to hear any of the names. When I asked at the end of the meeting if they had business cards, they had none.)

The team went straight into business. The leader of the team said they had brought with them a questionnaire, which they would use to assess the suitability of the cooperative’s proposal, and their readiness for the project. The first question was about the product the cooperative was proposing to produce. A woman spoke first and listed three items: tomato sauce, bwemba (tamarind) fruit juice, and baobab fruit juice. The leader asked for just one item, and the woman said bwemba fruit juice. Several hands went up, asking to correct her. Consensus established, it turned out to be tomato sauce. The OVOP team leader said the rest of the questions would come from his colleague, who had the questionnaire. In actual practice however, he repeatedly stepped in and led the proceedings. The questions were mainly aimed at establishing the level of advance preparedness the cooperative had engaged in. There were questions on what kind of market research had been carried out to identify the market for the product, and its size.  What were the average quantities of tomato produced throughout the year, per person in the cooperative? What assets did the cooperative have? How much money did they have in their bank account? How frequently did they use their bank account? How had they raised the startup funds? What other business transactions had they engaged in? Which other companies also producing tomato sauce had they identified as potential competitors? Did the area have electricity? What sources of energy would the plant run on? And many other such questions.

By the third or fourth question from the questionnaire, the conversation took on a rather hard tone, from the OVOP team leader. More than soliciting information on the level of preparedness, the cooperative was also being overtly challenged and not so subtly told they had no idea what was involved in researching the feasibility of a tomato sauce processing business. The lead person challenged the cooperative’s claim to being a “cooperative.” “What process did you go through to establish yourself as a cooperative? Did you obtain the necessary government approval? You don’t just decide to call yourself a cooperative. You have to apply for a government licence, and the government must provide it, before you can start using the term. You are not a cooperative.”

The OVOP team was requested, at least twice, to use Chichewa equivalents for terms such as “assets”, “shares,” and other words which were presented in English. Apparently aware that he may have been sounding rather harsh, the lead person said he needed to ask tough questions in order not to flatter the applicants about the real work involved in doing this kind of business. He would rather tell them the trust, than lie to them only for them to be shocked later when their proposal didn’t go through.

When the team finished with the questionnaire, the OVOP team leader said it was now time for the Bwanje group to ask questions. The chairperson of the “cooperative” signaled to continue on with the formalities they had earlier suspended, suggesting the order and hierarchies in which the chiefs and local representatives would speak. The OVOP team leader stepped in and said it was important for the group to be given a chance to ask questions. The formalities could be done on a later day. In their questions, the group wanted to know what they should do with the issue of a “cooperative.” They were told to go to the relevant offices, and fill out the proper paper work, asking to be registered. The group also wanted to know how much money they needed in their bank account in order to make their proposal more realistic. The team leader told the group how much a tomato sauce processing plant cost, around MK2 million (approximately US$13,333), and said they could attempt to raise a good fraction of that amount. Without a reasonable amount of capital, the group would not be able to make it into the top ten. OVOP had received a total of 139 proposals, and they would be paying closer attention to the top ten finalists.

The group asked if there was an OVOP business that had started off and succeeded, that they could use as a model. The team leader mentioned Bwanje Valle Rice Processing Group, which was in the same Bwanje valley area, and was using the name “Bwanje” in their designation (I later learned that the business is actually located at Mtakataka, in the next district of Dedza, and uses the name “Bwanje” because the valley straddles both Dedza and Ntcheu districts). We learned from the team leader that the rice processing business was now selling its rice in the major trading centres of Malawi, and was already depositing no less than MK200, 000 (approx. US$1,333) per month as repayments for the MK1 million loan they were given to purchase the plant. They had also participated at the recent 22nd Malawi International Trade Fair in Blantyre.

Asked what support the OVOP office was able to provide to aspiring OVOP businesses, the team leader excitedly explained that they were capable of supporting a business from its early stages. “We can provide experts who know the business well and can offer advice right from the start. We look around the world for experts. Government has given us that authority. We will go to Japan, India, wherever, to find an expert to come and guide you in your operations, at no cost to you.” He went on to say OVOP buys the plant requested in a proposal, constructs the building, and does all the consultation necessary to make the business viable. OVOP also funds the process of connecting the plant to the electric grid, as long as the cost does not go beyond MK1,500,000 (Approx. US$10,000).

After all the questions had been exhausted, the chairperson attempted one more time to have the chiefs speak, in their hierarchical order. The OVOP team leader announced they had to leave. They were supposed to have started out at Mtakataka, Dedza, where another OVOP proposal had been prepared, but they had been told at the last minute that the venue had been changed. The people there were still waiting for the team. In business, said the team leader, “time is money.” There was no request to put that into Chichewa.

The Bwanje group’s chairperson said the group had prepared lunch for the visitors, and asked if the team could spare a few minutes and eat before proceeding. The team leader insisted they had to leave, much as they were indeed hungry, and hadn’t had lunch. “This is how we operate. We do not like to keep people waiting, and we skip meals if we have to.”

As the team was leaving, I ran after the team leader and asked him when the Bwanje group should expect to hear the verdict on their proposal. And in the meantime, were there things they could do to improve their chances? He responded by saying all the proposals would be analyzed and evaluated sometime between June and August, and that the group could expect to hear back from OVOP by the end of August or early September. As to what they could be doing in the meantime, they might want to continue raising funds and reducing the gap between the cost of the processing plant and the group’s own capital. That would make it more probable for the group to repay the loan, should they be awarded an OVOP grant.

After the team had left, I was curious to hear the impressions of the Bwanje group. The chairperson was fearful that members of the group might feel discouraged by the tone of the OVOP team leader. By all accounts, the leader had not hidden his perception that the Bwanje group was totally unprepared, and had not done the necessary background research. “Did they really expect village people like us to know how to conduct market research?” Asked one of the members.  The chairperson said he had been reassured by the official from the Ministry of Trade and Industry that the tough questioning from the team leader should not discourage them. There were other things that went into consideration, beyond the questionnaire.

I have no idea what other considerations will go into the decision whether to award the Bwanje group an OVOP business grant or not, but whatever happens will in large part also entail what a determined Member of Parliament can achieve or fail to achieve. The issue of electricity is likely to feature prominently into the decision making process. One reason for this will be because a processing plant like the one being proposed will not be able to work without electricity. But more importantly, the issue of electricity supply, as my father said after the Bwanje meeting, hovers ominously above the entire question of development in Malawi.

That the Bwanje Valley Rice Processing project in Dedza has taken off as a huge success is due to the fact of the electric grid being nearby, a luxury that the Ntcheu part of Bwanje valley can only dream of. During the campaign period for the May 19 elections in 2009, President Bingu wa Mutharika visited an area some 20 kilometres north of Bwanje, my father told me. The president is said to have directed that the area be connected to the electric grid. It has been more than one year since the president’s visit, but there’s no electricity anywhere near the area. On hearing the president’s directive, the local Catholic parish, Sharpevale, sold all its maize reserves and realized MK800,000 (approx. US$5,333). They used the money to purchase a maize mill that requires electricity to run, hopeful that the president’s directive would be followed up on.

Sharpevale boasts a beautifully designed and magnificently imposing day secondary school, one of several constructed in the last few years by a World Bank project. As impressive as it is, there is no electricity at the school. Thirty kilometers south of Sharpevale is Bilira Day Secondary School, one of the oldest in the district. It too has no electricity. There are health clinics, post offices, private secondary schools and government primary schools, NGOs, and several other institutions operating in the Bwanje Valley area in Ntcheu, and there is no electricity in the entire area. Ironically, huge power towers and cables run across the area, carrying electricity to other parts of the country, except for the Ntcheu part of Bwanje Valley.

Meanwhile, the OVOP initiative is blossoming across the country, with support from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). It operates under the moto  “Towards Economic Empowerment of People”, and spells out its vision as “An empowered community generating wealth.” Officially launched in 2003 in the waning years of Dr. Bakili Muluzi’s presidency, after adapting the idea from Oita, Japan, the initiative has recently moved from the Ministry of Local Government & Rural Development to Trade and Industry. According to a newsletter and a flyer, the initiative had 30 projects as of March 2009.  By the end of 2009, the OVOP Secretariat had visited 60 projects, as I learned from the Bwanje visit by the OVOP team. An Antenna shop in Area 3 of the Capital City, Lilongwe, sales OVOP items from processed foods to cane furniture, to banana wine, cooking oil and gem stones, among dozens of other items. Some products are also being exported overseas, I was told by Mr. Lazarus Macheso, a shop assistant at the Antenna Shop. As of March 2009, delegations from Senegal and Rwanda had visited OVOP projects in Malawi, to learn from Malawi’s success, according to the June 2009 OVOP News, the initiative’s newsletter. And judging from explanations and descriptions offered by the OVOP team that visited Bwanje, the staff are highly trained and suitably knowledgeable about rural economics and development.

As I continue learning more about OVOP in Malawi, there are two aspects I will be interested in following closely. The first one will be the issue of development ideas whose implementation requires electricity. Perceptions around the problem of electricity supply in Malawi run the gamut from hopelessness to intractability, making one wonder whether it is not time to shift the paradigm into what is now being called green or alternative energy, ie, wind and solar power. After 46 years of independence and attempts at eletrification, how many more decades do we need to prove that the hydroelectric power experiment has ran its course? Given how President wa Mutharika has taken on some of Malawi’s most intractable problems, does the problem of energy, and the prospects of wind and solar power, register on his development agenda?

The second aspect I want to closely follow is that of ongoing experiments and attempts at finding the best approaches to economic development in the global South. Thus far the OVOP idea seems to stand out solely due to one factor. Save for the source of funds, and the Japanese origin of the idea, the initiative comes from the people themselves, who know best what local resources are available in their area. The term “local ownership” has lately become cliché, even where ownership is glaringly not local. How different is what I saw at Bwanje on May 31st? Is OVOP an initiative other development projects can learn from?


Anonymous said...

Steve this is a well thought and researched article and would go a long way in clarifying some of the questions I had on OVOP and its suitability of the Malawian Rural communities.
Earnest Pemba, Bodø, Norway

Unknown said...

Hi Steve

Maybe the Bwanje people would learn something in preparation for their second meeting with OVOP if they got in touch with AFFRI (, which last year ran a radio campaign (on MBC1) on association, club and cooperative formation and management. Called Mudzi Wobiriwira, the radio campaign was meant for the people of Thyolo (as a case study area.It seems to have helped the Thyolo people to undewrstand cooperatives,etc. MBC1still has copies of the programmes, I trust.

Otherwise, I feel sad for the peoiple of Bwanje. Next time, they should not even prepare meals for OVOP!!!

Stay Well

Levi Zeleza Manda
Blantytre, Malawi

Olivia Mchaju Liwewe said...

Che Mlauzi this is a brilliant exposing of how simple but hard working villagers can be denied of development by ill informed government officials.

Your observations and questions are pertinent and need to brought to the attention of the OVOP program.

I was quite agitated by team leader reading your article. It is quite clear to me that the OVOP team especially the arrogant team leader has not been grounded in participatory approaches to development and local community ethics. How can he come and leave without giving any respect to the chief and elders of the village? It is basic knowledge to any development officer to pay their respect to the chief of the area as they are the entry point for any development.If time is money how come he kept the villagers waiting for over three hours does the cliche' only apply to government officials?

How come OVOP has not yet translated their questionnaire and materials into the local language or was this group composed of Malawian expatriates who had no courtesy to let the chief speak even for five minutes?
Keep up the good work. Biti Mchaju

Wii Modding said...

Apparently aware that he may have been sounding rather harsh, the lead person said he needed to ask tough questions in order not to flatter the applicants about the real work involved in doing this kind of business. He would rather tell them the trust, than lie to them only for them to be shocked later when their proposal didn’t go through.

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