Those who know Grace Mijiga Mhango call her goal-oriented, energetic, self-driven, and decisive. Grace gives credit for these qualities to the lessons she’s learned from the people in her life. Firstly, she attributes her late father with teaching her chess. “I was a tough chess opponent by the time I was eight,” she says. “Chess teaches you to look several moves ahead and think before you do anything. This was a recipe for success.” Her mathematics teacher taught her about the importance of numbers. “He emphasized that life is always about calculations and as long you can show how you arrived at an answer, you have the world in your hands.” And she credits the first president of her home country Malawi − Dr. H. Kamuza Banda − for his insistence that there is worth in the soil.
It was this − understanding the worth in the soil − that brought the 52-year-old to where she is today. The ultimate objective, Grace will tell you, is getting healthy, nutritious foods onto people’s tables. And she knows that it all begins with a seed. “Our goal is to create an organization that combines farming methods, irrigation farming, and mobile technology to improve the productivity, efficiency, and quality of legume seed and grains.”
With this goal in mind, Grace, along with her sister Thokozani (Thoko) Unyolo, launched the first women-owned seed company in Malawi, Afriseed Company Limited, its focus being the production and distribution of quality legume seeds and grains. While doing research as part of her Master’s degree, Thoko learned that her country had a 70% seed deficit in legume seeds and that overall, Africa requires 1,200,000 tons of seed per annum but produces barely half that. This demand is expected to triple by 2020. Thoko also found a lack of extension services and poor storage capacity, which lead to perennial post-harvest loss, and therefore loss of a decent income for small farmers. Afriseed was designed and implemented to address these problems.
“Our vision,” Grace says, “is to create a network of women rural farmers who can feed themselves, their families, the nation, and Africa.” To this end, Grace conceptualized the African Food Basket Project, a multi-million-dollar agribusiness venture that promotes the growth of both hybrid and indigenous seeds led by women farmers – the bedrock of agricultural production.
Inspired by Graça Machel`s call to leave no one behind, Grace developed an inclusive business model that creates tailor-made agro-based enterprises and employment opportunities for the people along the legume seed and grain value chain. The model builds bridges between businesses and the disadvantaged so that each can enjoy mutual benefits. Grace sees this as the best tool for empowering disadvantaged people. She has worked with the Graça Machel Trust throughout the entire process − from the original concept through the feasibility study, business plan development, and finding a donor to kickstart the pilot projects in Malawi and Zambia. The overall programme aims to benefit 500,000 women across grain production value chains in six countries over the next five years. Apart from Malawi and Zambia, her target countries are the DRC, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.
Grace is the fourth child in a family of ten, the mother of three, and a grandmother to one. She was born in southern Malawi and has spent most of her life in the country. She herself farmed tobacco early on, along with pigeon peas (a bean native to Africa) and groundnuts. “I have had practical experience alongside the whole value chain of most of the agriculture commodities. I’ve handled most of the grains from field to the plate.”
Afriseed Company Limited, incorporated in Malawi in 2012, is a 100% female and family-owned venture. In addition to her sister Thoko, Grace’s eldest daughter is the third director in the company, and when Grace is ready to retire, she will be replaced by her second daughter. “One key benefit with having a family business is the element of trust − we all believe in each other fully. It has been a very healthy working relationship. We each have different strengths in terms of our skills, educational backgrounds, and talents; we complement each other very well. There is no space for competition between us.”
To date, Afriseed has created employment for 15 full-time staff and provides seasonal employment to more than 200 people each year. It has also created a network of 1300 rural, small-scale commercial farmers. Grace’s work days are long and often continue late into the night, though she is committed to time for family in the evenings. In addition to meetings with partners and stakeholders most days, she also makes frequent visits to the farming communities with whom she works. She says that the best advice she’s gotten came from her father. “He repeatedly told me that every problem or challenge has a solution, and that there are opportunities within challenges. Always face challenges with positivity.”
As part of her belief in social responsibility, Grace offers mentorship and entrepreneurship training to youth at the Baylor College of Medicine in Lilongwe, Malawi, where she has worked with over 350 young boys and girls. She also shares her entrepreneurship knowledge with farming communities who are poised to invest in businesses beyond farming.
Grace believes that one of the biggest barriers for female entrepreneurs in Malawi is the lack of organized networking platforms, which in turn leads to a lack of reliable information and opportunities. But she is certain the situation is improving, in part because of organizations that she works with that also support African women, such as the Network of African Business Women and Graça Machel Trust. “I am passionate about being an agent of change, creating intergenerational wealth for small farmers, and ending hunger through a model of inclusivity.”
Build an enterprise you are passionate about. Have a clear vision of where you want to go, where you would like to see yourself in a few years.
There is an Ethiopian proverb: When spider webs unite,
they can tie up a lion. Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork!
Be confident and turn challenges into opportunities, they will help you find solutions and unlock
Do not underestimate
the importance of a
good lawyer and a
Grace Mijiga’s story first appeared in Women Creating Wealth, A Collection of Stories of Women Entrepreneurs from across Africa. You order or download a copy here.