Story and pictures by Jennifer Hyman, Director of Communications
Land O’Lakes International Development
While the members of Tsonzo MCC struggled along with the rest of Zimbabwe during the 2008-2009 economic crisis, their history of poor governance and financial mismanagement was among their most difficult legacies when they first tried to restart though the USAID-funded Zimbabwe Dairy and Livestock Program.
But, as they proudly take turns posing for pictures with their recently-awarded prize of Most Improved MCC, which was given to them by Land O’Lakes and the Zimbabwe Association of Dairy Farmers (ZADF) at the East and Southern Africa Dairy Association (ESADA) conference in Harare, the MCC’s new volunteer leadership believes they’ve finally turned a corner and have created a viable, sustainable business.
Having initially started in 1986 with over 100 members, their 350 indigenous cows were producing about 2,000 liters a day, which they delivered to Dairibord. As a result of the hyperinflation crisis in 2008, farmers struggled to find food for their animals, and many of their cows died from malnourishment. They had no money to cover operating expenses, and the MCC was running at a loss. A few of the farmers continued to sell milk from local breeds at their farm gate, but membership dropped to 64 members.
“It was a very tough time, and the members who lost everything had no sources of livelihoods left. Some turned to growing staple crops like maize, or were looking for something they could sell,” remembered Justice Maluzika, secretary of Tsonzo MCC. Some of their farmers were able to access stock feed, revolving funds and an in-calf dairy cow though the EU-funded Stabex program administered by ZADF, and the program also helped them clear their debt and establish a processing room. But, despite the Stabex support, their membership continued to erode.
When Land O’Lakes came to Tsonzo MCC in August 2010, the MCC was on the verge of collapse, collecting 20 liters of milk a day. Member Augustin Marenji explained, “There had been poor management of revolving funds from the old committee, and many farmers feared they might be treated unfairly again.”
Land O’Lakes encouraged the group to start accounting, and trained administrators on how to handle financial statements and recordkeeping, along with three Community Livestock Workers in animal health. They held new elections to elect the leadership, who are all volunteering their time out of dedication.
The association is still small, and only includes 28 members, 19 of whom are delivering milk. However, they recently added 4 new members who were attracted by Tsonzo’s transparent posting of finances, and promise of a regular market. They are currently producing between 200-300 liters every other day, which the processor Dairibord picks up directly from the MCC.
“Some farmers were used to donors giving cows away, and so didn’t look after their animals well, because they always considered it the donor’s animal. But knowing it was theirs through a loan made them care more about their investment,” explained Justice, adding, “Only those who learned to farm as a business understood the significance of it all. Especially compared to previous assistance, where there was no real agreement for farmers to pay for their cattle.”
Among the most important things the members of Tsonzo learned was about fodder management; ensuring they had a budget for silage and haymaking; and preparing silage before the rains.
“In the past, we only did maize silage. But we learned about sugar graze, sun hemp, velvet beans and cowpeas from Land O’Lakes, which really helped us to improve our production,” explained 27-year-old Washington Sagonda, Tsonzo’s Vice Chair. “And this really worked to improve production. The farmers who ensiled saw great results, getting about 15 liters per day per cow even during the dry season, almost doubling their typical yields for that time of year.”
One thing they’re very proud of is the fact that they’re producing Grade A milk, which translates to 46 cents per farmer. Dairibord pays 56 cents, but the rest is deduced for the cooperative’s operating expenses, and ZADF also charges $25 a month for its services. Members like Augustin Marenji say they appreciate how transparent the finances are now.
“The quality bonuses are motivating us and morale is high. We are so proud to have been named the most improved center!” beamed Augustin, who says his monthly dairy income has risen from $100 to $400 a month, by milking 3 cows that produce a total of 30 liters a day. “My family is really enjoying the extra money, because we’re easily paying for school fees, I have more food for the family, and more money for maintaining my herd. But I also want to invest in building better shelters for my cows and saving money for a milking machine.”
Now that MCC is linked to Dairibord, Tsonzo’s members say they are pleased to have a reliable market for their milk, which they are confident will last beyond the ZDL program. They are also working to build their relationship with the processor independently, and are in discussions with them to provide inputs on credit after the program ends.
Justice concluded, “For those of us who embraced the idea of being a business partner, this program has made a world of difference in how we see ourselves and our futures. Things were really rough before, but we feel we’re well equipped to go on independently at this point.”