Severe food shortage in Malawi

Malawi’s food shortage is getting more serious as the harvest season is approaching. Here, the harvest for maize which is the staple food is only once a year since most are smallholder farmers depending 100% on rainfed farming.

Those crops harvested in April are, in general, stored throughout the year until the next harvest. Where most of the rural population depend on subsistent farming, good harvest ensures annual calorie intake for the households. Therefore, rain on appropriate time with appropriate amount determines their survival, not the total time spent on farm, so to speak.

That being said, only about twice a week do I see full rain in my village where rainy season was supposed to give it rooms to grow. Maybe it’s the climate change or maybe it’s the particularly bad year. But the problem is, the harvest from last year necessitated by dry spell and flood just like this year was already inadequate for people to survive with. It means next year this time will have little food as well. According to Southern Africa seasonal analysis for 2014/15 by WFP, Malawi was affected by significant rainfall deficit in Oct-Nov and the season start was also delayed. In mid-December to mid-January Malawi had heavy persistent rainfall which led to flooding affecting 800,000 people. Then again in mid-January to late February, severe rainfall deficit affected on maize production.

This time of year, usually maize lean season, is the toughest for farmers. Because their harvest was not enough to survive the whole year with. Government budget plan says that it will buy maize worth K8 billion in 2015/16 and spend K13 billion for benefitting Malawians with maize. I assume this benefit includes maize selling in Admarc depots where it is sold at K5,500 per 50kg, which is sold at over K13,000 with real market price. However, instead of the poor, it is the vendors who purchase this maize in bulk and sell them to people with the market price. Consequently, complaints and distrust towards government’s incapability are the talk of the newspaper every day.

If the problem is the absolute shortage of food, why doesn’t the government ease all the regulations for importing food? First, Malawian government doesn’t accept any GMO imports(or food aid) unless they were already processed or milled. This is mainly the concern of GMO products contaminating the environment(UNEP, 2006). And second, the government seems to be reluctant to import food too much from neighbouring countries. It is just my assumption, though. Recently government started to control the border to stop maize import from Zambia, to minimise the number of tax avoiders, they said.

Will it continue this way? Under status quo, one of the things that could happen is the expansion of urban slum. The moment farmers realise that benefit from farming drops to negative, they’ll probably start thinking about migration to urban area, with the whole family or the part of it. However, Malawi lacks major industry that can employ loads of idle labour. Manufacturing sector, for example, which can absorb many in the labour market, only consists 9% of GDP(2014, domestic authorities/AfDB, UNDP), compared to agriculture, 28% according to domestic authorities – the figure is 33% according to CIA. Only by the figure, agriculture seems like their best chance to make income or food from, assuming their highest education level is secondary or below. Urban poor tends to get their food from rural area through food remittance as food cost in urban area is much more expensive. In hypothetical example, family of 7 decides to send one or two of its family members to urban area knowing that more labour on small farm doesn’t necessarily lead to more food. Even though the migrant manages to do some informal casual work on street selling stuff to passer-by, they still depend on food remittance from their rural home. When the food transfer stops, they are deemed to come back home or live without food – somehow. At the end of the day, no one got richer.

Or course it doesn’t happen to everyone who migrates. But we will for sure have the same food shortage issue, if not worse, this year again. The government should take actions on how to feed the population and more importantly, how to protect farmers from getting affected by climate change.

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An anthropology novice with passion for small things. A development worker in a world of imponderabilia.

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