Investigating Ziweto’s Livestock Health Services Social Franchising Model in Malawi

By Abraham DeMaio

Malawi is located in South eastern Africa

My flight began at Logan Airport in Boston, Massachusetts, and ended at the international airport in Lilongwe, Malawi. I’d traveled to Africa twice previously to work on an Engineers Without Borders well water project in Uganda, but this was my first time visiting southern Africa. I had connecting flights in New York and Johannesburg, South Africa, before reaching my destination in Malawi.

I visited during monsoon season, and as soon as the airplane door opened, I could feel a blast of the warm Malawi air. Victor Mhango, founder of Ziweto Agrovet Shops greeted me graciously after I went through customs. On the way to the hotel, Victor gave me a preview of the visits planned for the week, and suggested that I rest up in preparation for the busy few days ahead.

Victor was gracious and easy to talk to, and took the time to tell me about the Malawi’s history, providing some interesting political and economic context. As we drove, we passed numerous farm fields, which turned, into the large buildings that make up Lilongwe’s industrial district Upon arriving at my hotel and checking in, I rested for the night in attempt to adjust to the immense jet lag from my long flight.

The next day Victor took me to see operations at the main office in Lilongwe. The building space is shared with the two other small businesses. There are two retail rooms, and a few rooms for the staff and storage. The rooms are stocked with veterinary supplies in an open an accessible manner. I was greeted by their marketing expert and veterinary technician, Ganizani, as well as a franchisee from the northernmost part of the Malawi, who went by Alinafe.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Victor, Ganizani and Alinafe about all aspects of operations and business affairs. I also interviewed one of the customers who came in, who praised the services and prices of Ziweto. Victor explained that during the beginning months of the wet season, business is typically slow for Ziweto. Farmers are attending to their fields, and livestock health becomes a lower priority.

After the office visit, I enjoyed a delicious lunch at a scenic restaurant with Victor, before returning to my hotel for the night. I tried the local dishes of Nsima and Chombo, two staples of the Malawian diet. After a night’s rest at the hotel, I returned to the office to conduct an interview with Ziweto’s accountant, Mariam. After that, I boarded a bus from Lilongwe to the city of Mzuzu in the northern region. The trip was a long 6-hour bus ride through the main roads leading through the country. During the ride, I noticed that the northern region had more trees and mountains than Lilongwe, but much of it was still farmland. When I reached Mzuzu, I was greeted by Byton, Victor’s partner, and co-founder of Ziweto. He was equally friendly and welcoming. He dropped me off at the hotel for the night, with plans to rendezvous the next day.

Inside an Agrovet shop

In the morning, I visited Ziweto’s new distribution location in the center of Mzuzu. This was a recent acquisition from Alfa Medic, and still bore the same name and original staff. The store was bustling as I interviewed the general manager. He informed me of the store’s well-established market, and high customer satisfaction. I interviewed some of Alfa Medic’s customers as well, who echoed the same praise for the shop’s quality, service, and reasonably-priced products.

Byton and I then departed for another long drive to the next destination: the district of Korunga. On the way, we stopped in a district called Rumphi. It was a mountainous and secluded part of the country, about the size of Mzuzu or Lilongwe. The franchise that we visited was much smaller and humbler, compared to the large and busy Alfa Medic office. The franchise owner’s name was Madalitso Nkhoma. He was a graduate from the Natural Resources College of Malawi and held a degree in animal health and production. He worked as a veterinary technician for 3 years, and was a subsistence farmer before he started working for Ziweto. We discussed current business and operations, and talked about some challenges at his location. I then interviewed three Lead Farmers that operated out of Madalitso’s location. They reported good pay and a good relationship with Ziweto, but noted lack of transportation, such as a bike, as a major barrier to their sales. Frustration with the lack of basic equipment was repeated by other employees or franchisees during my visit.

After the interviews were finished, Byton and I enjoyed a traditional Malawian lunch, and hit the road to Korunga. We drove past miles of beautiful landscape until we saw Lake Malawi, where my hotel was situated directly on the beach. Byton invited me to have dinner at his house and learn how to cook some of their local cuisine. It was a kind offer and a memorable night.

After waking up next to the lake at sunrise, Byton and I drove to my last Ziweto franchise, located in Korunga. My conversations with the franchisee and lead farmer repeated the themes and findings from my previous interviews. I also spoke with a loyal and larger customer who owned many chickens compared to the average farmer. She told me that she only buys from Ziweto, and has never had a problem with any of the products. As we were leaving, she offered me a mango from her tree when we were leaving — an understated example of the friendliness I experienced throughout my trip.

My interview with Ziweto co-founder Byton Simwela

I conducted a final interview with Byton on the beach of Lake Malawi, before driving back to Mzuzu to catch a bus to Lilongwe. Upon my return to Lilongwe, I had the honor of dining with Victor and some of his friends from the community. I watched the President’s inaugural address in the U.S. from a TV in a Malawi, eating Nsima and drinking guava juice. Memories to say the least. I boarded my plane the next morning, and began the long journey back to the United States.

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