Business for Anna Msowoya-Keys is a very personal matter. She doesn’t accept poverty or bad breaks as an excuse for giving up but rather sees this as the motivation to make a difference and be a force for good in the world. The women-own food processing cooperative she launched, tucked away in a small corner of beautiful Malawi, has its roots as a community-based collective that feeds, educates, and empowers vulnerable, mostly HIV/AIDS-infected women and children. Today Kwithu Kitchen generates funding for its outreach programmes, income for its members, and jobs for farmers supplying the produce.
“Growing up in northern Malawi, my family was decimated by HIV/AIDS. I lost four sisters, all their husbands, and many nieces and nephews. Returning to Malawi to attend my sister’s funeral in 2003, I was shocked to see the number of children present. When I asked why there were so many, I was told they were hoping to receive food. I realized immediately the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS, which had wiped out a generation of caregivers, teachers, and community leaders and left thousands of children orphaned. It was heartbreaking and I decided, regardless of my limited means, to do something about it.”
Despite the losses her family experienced, Anna was raised in a loving environment. Her parents were teachers and active in community affairs so as a child she developed a strong sense of compassion and moral duty, which led her to a career in international development. For more than 20 years, Anna served in international non-profit organisations, such as Action Aid, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and the Women’s Commission for Refugees, Women and Children, improving the lives of disadvantaged populations in Mozambique, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and Rwanda. It was on an International Rescue Committee assignment that she met her American husband in 1998 and returned with him to New York where they raised two sons.
Following her return from her sister’s funeral, Anna established Maloto, an NGO delivering health, education, and nutrition programmes to women and children, who like her own family, had suffered immensely from the undiscerning ravages of HIV/AIDS. In 2004, volunteers at the Kwithu Community Centre in her hometown of Mzuzu were feeding 20 children a hot meal once a week. Today, that same group is able to feed more than 300 children three times a day, as well as provide a plethora of other health and education services, all thanks to Anna’s fund-raising efforts and an “a-ha moment” that led to the launch of a business venture called Kwithu Kitchen.
“Malawians love tomatoes, but there’s no tradition of preserving them so they can be expensive out of season and much goes to waste. The supermarkets carry tomato products from South Africa and Europe so we thought why not preserve tomatoes ourselves to increase their shelf life. When we got a clean bill from the Malawi Bureau of Standards, we realized we could target supermarkets, institutions and the public at large with our own Kwithu Kitchen brand. There and then, I knew this could be big so we incorporated as a business,” the 55-year-old explains.
Kwithu (meaning home) Kitchen is owned and operated by the Kwithu Women’s Group, a cooperative of 33 women, more than half of whom are HIV+. With the help of over US$400,000 in grants, Anna and her team have been able to build a factory, train 500 small-holder farmers from whom they source the tomatoes and conduct capacity-building training for the cooperative members. Knowing that grants are not the most reliable source of funding, Anna has developed a sustainable solution to generate capital.
“Grants have been our main source of funding up to now. It’s very difficult to get a loan in Malawi, especially as a rural women-owned cooperative with no assets for collateral to speak of. And regardless, the interest rates are prohibitive at more than 40%. We continue to rely on grants but treat them as if they were loans. We set aside a portion from our sales that – instead of being applied to debt repayment – is placed in a fund to enable continual investment in the business,” Anna explains.
And no doubt capital will be needed. The social enterprise initially experienced high cost of goods, but Anna has sourced high-quality, affordable packaging materials to bring down costs and has plans to diversify the product offering to include other tomato-based products such as puree and sauce as well as mangos, bananas, and pineapple. Her goal is to make the Kwithu Kitchen brand a staple of every Malawian pantry as well as to export outside the country’s borders.
“I’m really proud that we have made a product meeting international standards that creates employment for these women and gives business to the small-holder farmers. Our success has also enabled me to establish an internationally accredited high school and a primary school – Mzuzu International Academy.
“It’s impossible for one person to change the world,” Anna says, “but if you start with a corner, use a community-centred approach, work hard and never despair, you can have an impact. I began with one child in that feeding programme more than a decade ago but I dreamt big and met a lot of people who have supported my vision and look what happened. In all of us, there is that good. We can each make a difference, so find your corner and just start.”
Always, always, always talk frequently to clients to make sure you are delivering what the consumer wants and understanding the market.
HANG IN THERE
Stay strong, work hard,
and don’t get discouraged.
It takes time for people to believe in what you are
doing. For example, most Malawians believe that imported goods are better
than what is made locally.