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December 17, 2013

Biriwiri Potato Crisps

Name: Mayu SAKAGUCHI
Batch: 23-3
Field: Rural Community Officer
Host organization: Ntcheu DCDO

I was working at the Ntcheu District Council under the Community Development Office which is under the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare. One of the main activities that I work on is with Economic Activity Program Groups. These groups make various products including potato crisps and honey. Some of these production groups are also under One Village One Product (OVOP). The group that I want to introduce is also an OVOP group and one that I have been working with intensely. They are called Biriwiri Farmers and Marketing Cooperative (BIFAM) and produces potato crisps that I call Biriwiri crisps.

Since the altitude of Ntcheu is higher than other districts, it is a great place to plant and grow potatoes. That's one of the main reasons a groups of potato farmers in 2008 decided to form a group to start producing potato crisps in order to add value to the raw material, potatoes, to generate more income. Soon after that, they received machinery from OVOP secretariat as a loan. Every group has its ups and downs, and BIFAM was no exception. When I moved to Ntcheu in February 2012, this group was not functioning at all. They had financial problem, problems among the group members, and was swamped with almost every kind of problem you could think of. We worked together to solve one problem at a time and through this process, the group became stronger and more motivated and even started producing crisps again. That was at the end of 2012. And around that time, they received a grant from US, which included working capital enabling them to boost their business even more.

There are two flavors for the potato crisps, tomato and BBQ. At the beginning when they had just restarted their production, the spices they were using were not of good quality and it did not sell well. Malawians are very polite and the concept of ‘harmony’ is very important in their culture. They will not criticize any product in front of people, especially if those people are involved in the production process even if they are asked for critical feedback. This is a similar characteristic to Japanese people, we try to be very polite and diplomatic so as not to offend anyone. Therefore, all the Malawian people that bought/tasted the crisps said that it was "delicious" "very nice" and "of good quality". However, no one repeatedly bought the crisps leading to the conclusion that it was not good. As a group we talked about how to improve the taste, and we even had a tasting sessions where we tasted different crisps from different companies to try to figure out what is wrong with our crisps and how to improve it. After the grant from US came, the group was able to buy some new spices, some from within Malawi some from other countries, leading to a much better taste all together. Now with the new taste, more people are starting to buy our product and I can believe it when Malawian people say that it is ‘very good’.

Another characteristic of Malawian people that I have noticed is that they are very cautious about buying new products. If it were in Japan, you would see new products every month at the convenient stores or supermarkets and people would buy them in a heartbeat trying to stay on top of the trend. However, here in Malawi, that does not hold true. People are comfortable with what they know, sometimes regardless of whether it is good or bad. Therefore, although I strongly believe that the Biriwiri Potato Crisps are better in taste and quality than that of the largest most well known Malawian company producing crisps, we had a difficult time getting people to actually purchase our product.

That was when we had a promotion-advertising event in the parking area of one of the main supermarkets in Lilongwe. We had people actually taste our crisps, something you do know see often in this country, so that they would know how good it was and be tempted to buy it. We did this promotion-advertising activity for three days. Of course there were people that just walked by without even giving us a glance, but there were people that bought one packet just to try it out or even 20 packets since they liked it so much. The sales for the three days were not so bad but I felt that they could have sold more. I'm sure that once this cooperative, Biriwiri Farmers and Marketing Cooperative is more known, the sales will rocket. However, I feel that one of the goals of this promotion-advertising event was to get their name out there and I feel we succeeded in that. We need more people to know that this cooperative exists and that it is made up of local potato farmers that are working hard to make their business work. I believe that the ball has started rolling and it is up to the group to keep it rolling.

As of now, the group has started selling their crisps not only in Lilongwe, but to other neighboring districts as well. They are also planning of increasing the number of flavors, not just sticking to BBQ and tomato.

It surprises me at how far this group has come. When I look back a year and a half ago, they were not doing anything, there were too many problems to deal with, and the future looked dull. However, now when you look at BIFAM, it's as if it's a new group all together. They have realistic goals that are accomplishable and some that have already been accomplished. Of course they still have their small ups and downs and problems as any cooperative/group may have, but they solve those one at a time and grow bigger and stronger as a cooperative. I feel that I am very lucky and fortunate to have been part of this progress and to have known and worked with them. I am looking forward to see how they prosper in the years to come.

PhotoActivity of advertisement

PhotoPotato crisps at OVOP fair

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