At the beginning of the month, the Agricultural Transformation Initiative (ATI), in conjunction with Palladium, co-hosted the first annual Agricultural Transformation Summit in Lilongwe, Malawi, as part of its commitment to support the diversification efforts of tobacco-dependent countries. The two-day summit which took place on the 4th and 5th of December featured a series of discussions about how the agriculture sector in Malawi can strengthen alternative value chains and the overall ecosystem.

Attendees and participants at the summit included key private sector leaders, research experts, and government officials like Jim Lutzweiler, VP, Agriculture and Livelihoods, Foundation for a Smoke-Free World; Eduardo Tugendhat, Director of Thought Leadership at Palladium; and Ani Bassey-Eyo, CEO, LANI Group and Co-Founder SEHAI Foods, Nigeria.

“As the global demand for tobacco decreases, we believe it’s imperative to support efforts to diversify economies and lessen the reliance of smallholder farmers on tobacco. This is particularly true in Malawi where tobacco accounts for over 60 percent of the country’s total annual earnings and 13 percent of the economy as measured by the gross domestic product,” says Jim Lutzweiler. “These are very complicated issues and that’s why we have partnered with Palladium, who has vast experience in this area, to gather experts in Malawi from various sectors for this summit.”

To ensure Malawi’s economy can thrive despite a worldwide decline in tobacco demand and production, the ATI is working with smallholder tobacco farmers to facilitate the development of complementary structured value chains to make the agriculture sector globally competitive. One of the ATI’s first actions was to issue a request for Expressions of Interest to operate and manage a new Center for Agricultural Transformation in Malawi. The Center’s goal is ultimately to transform the lives of Malawian smallholder tobacco farmers by leveraging innovation in agricultural science and technology.

“The diversification of smallholder farmers can only succeed through inclusive business models that effectively connect them to markets, finance, and technology in ways that provide much greater economic value to all actors in the ecosystem,” said Eduardo Tugendhat. “This Summit and the ATI provide an excellent opportunity to leverage existing initiatives and resources in building solutions at scale.”

In delivering the keynote address at the summit, Bassey-Eyo of LANI Group and SEHAI Foods challenged industry stakeholders in Malawi and the SADC and COMESA regions to think out of the box to transform the Agricultural sector. Malawi has found itself caught up with reduced revenues from tobacco, its primary export, in light of increased global health regulations.

“Global trends indicate a high sensitivity to Malawian revenues as a result of its dependence on a single crop, consumer appetite due to increased health concerns, and to some extent, an import bill that can be further reduced by effective import substitution policies. There is also the need to overhaul tax and revenue management systems and bring in more agricultural players into the tax net as farmer incomes increase,” Bassey-Eyo stated.

Ani Charles Bassey-Eyo being interviewed by Femi Oke after presenting the Keynote address at the opening of the Agricultural Transformation Summit in Lilongwe, Malawi.

His keynote led to a highly interactive discourse over two days that will set the basis for the complete overhaul of the Malawian economy. During the Youth Agribusiness Forum which he moderated on the last day of the summit, Bassey-Eyo brought his astute entrepreneurial flair to play by sharing his experience in introducing crowdfunding in the Apiculture space in Nigeria and his experience in consolidating a largely fragmented value chain (beekeepers) through Sehai Foods, Nigeria’s second largest honey packer, a company he co-founded in 2012.

He also discussed strategies for profitable and inclusive diversification, as well as best practices for implementing agricultural transformation including education, youth and women inclusion and establishing agricultural tech hubs. According to him, there is a need for a more robust entrepreneurial curriculum from the primary level in Malawi. “Human capital education. Education linkages in agriculture are what will transform and change the narrative. All stakeholders and partners must enshrine education in the Agric programmes,” he said.

From his experience with Axiom Learning Solutions, another company he co-founded in 2010, Bassey-Eyo understands the role of teachers as advocates and change agents in rural communities. He stressed that for Malawi’s largely rural concentrated population, developing human capital education could be a turning point.

In October, the ATI issued two requests for proposals (RFP) in support of additional projects in Malawi. The first RFP asks eligible private sector firms, research institutions, other interested entities, and partnerships or consortia to submit proposals that present viable market-led solutions aimed at solving current challenges for transforming smallholder agricultural livelihoods in Malawi.

The second RFP seeks to engage in a three-year preferred collaboration with qualified research partners to provide independent program evaluation and decision-focused research support to the ATI. The preferred partners will help nurture and promote the use of rigorous evidence by the ATI to improve its impact on smallholder tobacco farmers in Malawi.

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