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Southern Africa

Setting an African example

by Raphael Mweninguwe
Staple food: selling maize cobs at the road­side in Blantyre

Staple food: selling maize cobs at the road­side in Blantyre

Malawi’s government subsidises seed and fertiliser, and farmers’ yields have risen considerably. The programme is popular, but the big question is whether or not the subsidies are affordable. Adverse impacts of climate change, moreover, may make the policy worthless. By Raphael Mweninguwe

The economy of Malawi, a landlocked country, largely depends on agriculture. Tobacco is the most important export product. The main staple foods are maize, rice and traditional crops such as cassava. The country takes pride in a food surplus this year. It was possible due to adequate rainfall and the government’s subsidised farm programme that includes fertiliser and seed.

Things were not always like this. In the 2001/2002 growing season, there was a drought which some linked to the global phenomenon of climate change. The drought resulted in food shortages and hunger related deaths. An estimated five million people were in dire need of food. Malawi’s government and international agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP), were busy mobilising resources to feed the hungry. Some 14 % of Malawians are HIV-positive, and people who were suffering from AIDS were particularly vulnerable to hunger, since their immune system was weakened already.

After this crisis, agriculture finally became the dominant topic in politics. In 2004, Bingu wa Mutharika was sworn in as president. In the campaign, he vowed to deal with hunger by implementing a host of programmes including subsidies.

Today, an annual 1.7 million families are benefiting from such subsidies. A 50 kilogramme bag of fertiliser now costs the equivalent of four US dollars. Without subsidies, the price would be around $ 50. “Malawi is a country that can feed itself,” the president said when he introduced the subsidy programme. “We have a lot of resources and we want to turn this country from food insecurity to food security.”

The country needs about 2.5 million tons of maize to feed itself annually, and in the first year of the programme, the country had a surplus of about 1.6 million tons. Food security remains the main priority of Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The successful programme paid off politically too: in 2009, the president was voted back into office for his second and last five-year term.

During Mutharika’s first term, Malawi became something like Africa’s role model on agricultural production. Malawi was suddenly able to export surplus Maize to the neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe and Lesotho, where crops failed due to droughts and poor agricultural policies.

“Malawi’s success story is an inspiration to the region,” says Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, the head of FANRPAN, the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network, which is active in southern African countries. The international community praises Malawi’s food security policy too. In recent years, Mutharika got awards from various international organisations.

An estimated 85 % of the 13.1 million Malawians live in rural areas. Most depend on farming for their livelihoods. An estimated 56 % of the population lives below the poverty line, and many must make do with less than one dollar per day. Rural Malawians are the primary supporters of Mutharika. As donor governments saw the merit of his programmes, some began to support Malawi’s agriculture policy, including the EU and Britain.

The government points out that the subsidy programme has helped to reduce poverty. Andrew Daudi, principal secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, argues that the programme has assisted over six million people since it was started. President Mutharika insists he has no plan to discontinue the subsidies.

Nonetheless, there is a debate on whether or not the country can afford the programme. Critics say the government is investing too much in agricultural subsidies – to the detriment of other programmes. The country’s 2010/2011 national budget is MK 297 billion ($ 1.98 billion) with almost 10 % earmarked for subsidies. This is the government’s most expensive budget item.

Some donors, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), for instance, have expressed the worry that the subsidy programme is too expensive. They have asked the government to consider ending the programme. Jim Drummond, the DFID director responsible for west and southern Africa, recently told reporters that the programme cannot run forever and that the responsibility to stop it lies with the government. He said that Britain would continue to support Malawi regardless of its decisions of subsidies.

Jane Tomasi, a farmer, says the subsidy programme must continue because “many farmers in Malawi are benefiting from it”. She adds: “Before the subsidy programme we could not afford to buy fertiliser and seed. Now, with the available fertiliser from the government through coupon distribution, many of us are now food secure.” She says she sells surplus maize she harvests.

Manford Lungu, a farmer and agrodealer in northern Malawi agrees: “Thanks to the programme, I have become able to feed my family.” Lungu says, the programme must continue no matter what it costs the government.

Bad weather

The success of the programme – and thus its survival – also depends on rainfall. In the 2009/2010 growing season, rain was only scant in the southern part of the country, so many famers failed to harvest a bumper yield in spite of subsidised fertiliser. The Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) reported that 1.1 million Malawians were not getting enough food.

Once again, experts related the weather events to climate change. FANRPAN Chief Executive Sibanda said at the time: “Agriculture will have to adapt to increasingly variable and unpredictable growing conditions. This year we had a glimpse of the future.” She pointed out that, at the global level, agriculture is contributing to climate change and added that existing knowledge on better land practices serves to sequester carbon into soils and plant biomass: “It is estimated that agriculture has the potential to sequester up to 90 % of agriculture’s total emissions.”

African smallholders are not major contributors to climate change, but they will certainly have to cope with its consequences. The majority of Malawi’s farmers are poor. Most do not know how to read or write. Disseminating knowledge about better farming practices therefore depends on extension workers, most of whom are probably not familiar with climate change issues, however. Even the most advanced climate scholars, moreover, cannot predict the impacts of climate change with any great precision. Some farmers believe that the drought that hit the country last year was just a natural phenomenon and had nothing to do with global environmental trends.

Mutharika, then chairman of the African Union (AU), launched an Africa Food Day in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, in October 2010. The idea is to encourage African leaders to draft policies to deal with hunger across the continent. He is proud of Malawi’s achievements in this area.

Malawi is expected to reap in bumper yields again in the current growing season. This would be a good time therefore to consider phasing out subsidies eventually. But there will be presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014, and the government will certainly not cut any programme that masses of voters are in favour of.