Owning a tractor and various soil cultivation implements used to be part and parcel of commercial crop farming in Malawi. However, many farmers have now switched to a new business model: one which doesn’t necessitate extensive equipment ownership. Innovative agricultural solutions company Farming and Engineering Services (FES) is a pioneer of this trend. In addition to purely selling equipment, the company has evolved its business model to offer a host of contract farming solutions, including land preparation, crop spraying, material handling, bulk water management, full maintenance leasing and harvesting.
“What it means is farmers don’t need to invest in capital-intensive equipment only used for a short period in the year. FES will provide the equipment and perform the work on a contract basis at a rate charged per hour or per hectare. One of our expert team members will even provide farmers with advice on the best agricultural practices,” says the company’s group managing director Mike Aldworth.
FES, established in 1967, is the single largest investor in Malawi’s agricultural equipment industry and the sole distributor of several well-known brands, including Massey Ferguson, Challenger, Zimmatic, Netafim, Baldan, Komatsu, AJ Power and Toyota Forklift.
While contract farming is relatively established in mature agricultural markets, FES was the first company to offer a full-suite of services in Malawi. It counts the country’s biggest farming estates as its clients and also offers a wide range of products and services to smallholder farmers.
In addition to the savings on equipment, farmers can achieve improved yields by outsourcing functions such as land preparation, according to Aldworth. “FES has a large number of clients, which allows us to invest in top-of-the-range equipment that can get the job done much quicker.” He explains it could take a typical farmer three weeks to plough out his or her fields using a medium-sized tractor, whereas the latest models can complete the task in a fraction of the time. And the quicker crops such as maize get into the ground, the greater the potential yield come harvest time.
Farmers in Malawi are gradually embracing tech-enabled precision agriculture. For instance, Aldworth highlights greater use of GPS-guided auto-steer technology on tractors. With their pinpoint accuracy, these tractors are much more precise and efficient when it comes to tasks such as land preparation, planting and fertiliser application. When manually driving a tractor, farmers oftentimes overlap rows during ploughing or planting. On a large farm, these inefficiencies add up to significant unnecessary costs. Self-steering tractors completely eliminate such wastage. Furthermore, with GPS equipment, a farmer can practice controlled traffic in his fields, eliminating soil compaction in the vital root zone areas.
Aerial drones are also set to become a more common sight on farms in Malawi. FES’s current drone technology is utilised for topographical surveys, plant health inspection and spraying for pre and post emergent herbicides, pesticides and crop ripeners. In terms of crop spraying, drones offer significant savings compared to traditional crop spraying planes because they are more accurate and efficient in coverage, and use less product, not to speak about the safety aspect.
Another innovative solution introduced by FES is AgriLab, Malawi’s first independent soil- and leaf-testing facility which allows farmers to test and manage their soil, leaf and water quality. What sets this laboratory apart is that it is specifically focused on the agriculture sector and utilises state-of-the-art equipment that delivers superior results compared to other facilities in the region. Aldworth explains that once the soil or leaf analysis has been completed, the AgrilLab agronomist could suggest a suitable blend of fertiliser together with recommendations on how it should be applied.
Expansion into Zambia
FES recently acquired the assets of agricultural equipment supplier BHBW Zambia and as a consequence secured the Massey Ferguson and Challenger franchises for Zambia. FES intends to expand on the product range and replicate its successful business model of equipment dealership combined with precision contract farming and other agricultural solutions, in Zambia.
Aldworth says Zambia’s sugarcane, maize, soya and wheat farmers, in particular, will benefit from FES’s full range of contracting services: from road maintenance, bulk water infrastructure design, and construction and maintenance, to land preparation, irrigation, harvesting and agronomy services. The company also plans to assist emerging farmers in areas such as smallholder aggregation, irrigation, mechanisation and agronomy.
Regional agriculture trends
Commenting on agriculture trends in Malawi and Zambia, Aldworth highlights a gradual shift from commoditised crops (such as maize, soya, wheat and tobacco) to higher-value produce. He says while maize will remain a staple crop for the region, more farmers are growing macadamia nuts, ground nuts, avocado, blueberries, chili and paprika. He attributes this trend partly to greater demand for nuts and superfoods from health-conscious consumers.
Looking to the future
The recent re-investment of Phatisa, a food-focused African private equity firm – supported by a pool of UK and European development finance institutions – will bolster FES’s long-term growth strategy, assisting the company to expand its successful business model within the region. “We continuously seek ways to expand our offering to support our clients and achieve our greater vision to mechanise African agriculture and ensure food security. With the backing of our new partners, FES looks forward to the new growth chapter that awaits us,” Aldworth says.