Originally published on July 20, 2017.
In a rural village of southwestern Tanzania, Consolata Mharle grew up in a home focused on two things: education and agriculture. Her father was an educational officer, and her mother, a farmer. Now in her 60’s, Consolata still remembers being a girl watching her mother harvesting cassava, maize and beans – it’s what they grew, ate and sold. Her family didn’t have much, and meals lacked diversity, but her parent’s dedication to her education paid off. Consolata eventually left her village and went on to earn a degree in Home Economics-cum-Nutrition from the Open University of Tanzania.
As a nutrition student, Consolata was introduced to mchicha nafaka, or amaranth – a leafy green vegetable commonly used in Tanzanian meals. The more she learned about it, the more excited she became. “In addition to the health benefits of the leaves, I learned that if you let the plant grow and flower, the flower seeds can be a good source of protein, minerals, and vitamins too.” Consolata ended linking her thesis on iron deficiency in pregnant women with amaranth nutrient richness, and discovered that the plant is not only healthy, but also easy to grow and harvest. It takes just two months to grow from seed to a mature, flowering plant, reaching heights of 5-7 feet. “I thought about how this product could bring dietary diversity to villages like mine. I saw that I can help people to improve their life while earning additional income,” says Consolata.
In 2015, Consolata retired from a government position to focus on her original dream: an amaranth business. Channeling her farming roots, she started on her own land. With her two daughters, she planted, harvested, dried, winnowed, and packaged the product. Her mother, now 84, was her first customer. “My mother has many aches from so many years in the field. Consuming amaranth seed products I am preparing, has helped reduce the inflammation. She used to be bed ridden, but with little support she can get out of the bed and get sited on a chair more now. Some studies confirm that amaranth has anti-diabetic effect which I believe has helped to relieve her from her diabetes,” says Consolata.
After selling it to some neighbors, word started to spread: this was a wonder product. Consolata taught customers to use the grain as a healthy, high protein replacement for porridge, cakes, ugali, bread or popcorn. Consumers were feeling more energized, and others were reporting relief from achy joints,
ulcers, numbness and hypertension. Nursing mothers even reported having more milk. “Demand was higher than supply. I didn’t know how to keep up,” says Consolata.
In 2015, Consolata applied for a grant in response to a newspaper advertisement calling for agricultural innovators. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Land O’Lakes International Development, the Innovations in Gender Equality (IGE) program was looking to
support motivated entrepreneurs with ideas to improve women’s empowerment, reduce women’s farm and household work load, and/or increase agricultural productivity, income generation and improved health and nutrition. Consolata was one of 10 to win a grant.
IGE trained Consolata on business practices, like financial management and record keeping. Then, IGE connected her with farmer groups to educate on the benefits of growing and eating amaranth, and eventually become suppliers for her business. In 2016, after the first year of harvest, nearly 100 farmers from two villages are successfully growing, selling and consuming amaranth grains.
With her new access to growers and supply, Consolata had a record year in 2016, selling 400 kilos of amaranth, expanding her distribution to over 500 customers and earning her a total of TZS 1,538,000 (698 USD). “My vision is to come from small scale to large by selling in more markets, pharmacies and
eventually export”, she says.
What started as a farm girl’s dream of making a living in agriculture, and helping other farmers and rural villagers is a dream no longer. And, though it’s been many years since she left her family’s village, it’s clear her early roots in farming have only grown deeper.