An overview of Malawi’s food security success


At the time president Bingu wa Mutharika took over the reigns of power from Bakili Muluzi as Malawiís president in 2004, the country was experiencing a dry spell that resulted in drastic reduction in agricultural productivity to 800 kilogrammes per ha and a national production of 1.2 million metric tonnes against a national food requirement of approximately 2.1 million. In the years preceding this, the hunger situation was worse so much so that up to 5 million people depended on donor aid for food. In 2005, Mutharika introduced the Farm Input Subsidy Programme aimed at improving smallholder food productivity and ensuring food security. The programme was designed to increase investment in agriculture with support to the most vulnerable households for them to access the most needed agricultural inputs such as fertiliser and improved hybrid maize seed with a view of increasing agricultural productivity and to improve food security at both household and national levels. To improve the rural economy, tobacco, cotton and legume crops were also supported and pesticides were introduced to reduce the post harvest loss.

150,000 metric tons of fertilizer for maize and 20,000 metric tons tobacco fertiliser, 4,000 metric tons of hybrid and open-pollinated varieties (OPV) of maize seed including 400 metric tons of pesticides were availed annually to the targeted beneficiary for crop production and pest attack protection. Agriculture is the backbone of Malawi’s economy. The sector contributes about 38 per cent of the countryís Gross Domestic Product. It contributes to 80 per cent of the countryís total export earnings and employs 80 per cent of the country’s workforce. Tobacco, sugar, coffee, and tea are important cash crops with maize as the dominant food staple to which smallholder farmers devote 85 per cent of their land area to maize production.  However, Malawi faces severe land pressures. The average size of smallholder farms is less than one hectare. Consequently, most smallholder land is continuously cropped, with little replenishment of the nutrients, resulting in low productivity. Fertiliser, improved seed, and better crop management are essential for raising farm productivity in Malawi. Without fertilizer, yields will remain low, and farm households will remain food insecure and impoverished. Since nearly 80 percent of households rely on agriculture as their major livelihood strategy, HIV/AIDS has had devastating consequences on poor farming households.

HIV/AIDS and related diseases are now the leading cause of adult mortality in Malawi. The National AIDS Commission (NAC) estimates that approximately 12 percent of Malawians among the most productive age group (15-49 years) are infected and, in urban areas, the level of infection in adults reaches 20 percent.  Every year, as many as 100,000 new infections occur, and at least half of those are among people aged 15-24 years.  Households affected by HIV/AIDS – whether caring for and supporting orphans or a chronically ill relatives or neighbours – represent a staggering 64 percent of the population leading to loss of productive labour in rural households. Extremely poor and vulnerable households possess no excess capacity to survive additional burdens. HIV/AIDS is also diminishing the human capital of upcoming generations as children, particularly young girls, are taken out of school to care for sick family members or sent out to work in order to subsidise family income. This severely limits their ability to gain education and life skills. Intergenerational knowledge is also deteriorating as parents die before passing on wisdom and learning to their children.

To mitigate this situation and address food insecurity, the World Bank which earlier alongside other donors criticized the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP), begun supporting the subsidy program in 2005 through an extra $30 million budget support and a reallocation of $12.5 million of Malawi Social Action Fund resources to public works programs which enabled poor farmers to purchase subsidized farm inputs.  The programme came from a history of a country that produced enough maize to meet its national requirements in the 1970s but later begun to experience grain deficits due to rising land pressures because of population pressures, declining soils, low productivity, and periodic weather shocks.

During the 1998/1999 season the Malawi government introduced a free fertilizer distribution program aimed at increasing fertilizer use among smallholders. A free ëstarter packí program was initiated first as part of drought response efforts and later to stimulate uptake of hybrid maize and raise national output to reduce food imports. DfID was the major financier of the program. The programme was carried out from 1998 to 2000 followed up by the Targeted Input Programme (TIP) between 2001 and 2005 and later the current FISP.  The Starter Pack (SP) programme provided inputs to smallholder farmers adequate for 0.1ha. These inputs were given to farming families estimated at about 3 million. The input pack included 2kg of hybrid maize, 2kg of nitrogen legume, and 10kg of basal fertiliser and 5kg of top dressing fertiliser.

The TIP was a scaled down version of SP meant as an exit strategy. It initially targeted about 1.5 million farming families which would eventually be brought down to 350,000 households. Its input pack included 2kg of OPV maize seed, 1kg of legume seed, 5kg of basal fertiliser and 5kg of top dressing fertiliser. However, since it was designed in the wake of hunger, the beneficiaries were revised upward to 2.8 million to militate against the hunger situation. In the 2004/5 growing season, the government intended to implement a universal fertiliser subsidy programme but changed tune because of donor resistance. Instead, it implemented what was described as ëExtended Targeted Input Programmeí (ETIP) which reached out to about 2 million households with 5kg of OPV maize seed, 12.5kg of both basal and top-dressing fertiliser and 1kg of legume seed.

After president Mutharika wrestled power from the UDF in 2005, he introduced a broader agricultural input subsidy program by exploiting the ETIP in the name of FISP through populist pricing of the farm inputs using a voucher system that targeted 1.5 million maize and 200,000 tobacco farmers. Maize farmers received one 50kg bag of basal and top dressing fertilizers selling at MK950 (US$6). Tobacco farmers received one 50kg bag of CAN and D compound each at MK1, 450 (US$9) per bag. In 2007/08 season more than 1.7 million farmers received coupons for 170,000 tonnes of fertilizer and almost 3 million farmers received coupons redeemable for seed. With a combination of favorable rains, FISP contributed to drastic increases in maize harvests. This has seen Malawi exporting 400,000 tonnes of grain to Zimbabwe and 80,000 tonnes to Swaziland and Lesotho. As the country edged towards the 2009 elections, maize farmers were given 3kg OPV maize at MK150 (US$1)/3kg compared to the market price of MK500 (US$3)/3kg with government allocating over 50 per cent the budget of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security to FISP.

Political scientist associate professor Blessings Chisinga observes that the configuration of maize politics has created a strong network which favours international commercial players and their genetic material in the seed sector over local producers, and local varieties. This has invariably privileged the genetic material supplied by the multinational seed companies at the expense of the national breeding programme whose main client are the local seed companies controlling only 10 percent of the seed market,î argues Chisinga in a study report titled ëSeeds and Subsidies: The Political Economy of Input Programmes in Malawií. He adds ìThe governmentís fixation on food security has also contributed to privileging the genetic material from multinational seed companies. He says, ìThe interests of seed companies and government have coincided to create a seed industry that has a very narrow product portfolio which is distributing benefits to a very small proportion of the population through various forms of commercial ventures and schemes of political patronage buoyed by excessive weaknesses in the regulatory framework for the seed industry. Chisinga observes that multinational seed companies are the major beneficiaries of the subsidy programme since they have guaranteed markets as seed procurement for the programme is not done through a competitive tendering process.

In his presentation of the 2011/12 national budget, the minister of finance, Ken Kandodo said government has allocated K17.4 billion (US$116m) to procure 140, 000 metric tons of fertilizers comprising 70,000 metric tonnes of UREA and 70,000 metric tons of NPK Fertilizers to distribute to 1.4 million farm families. He said another K3.6 billion (US$ 24m) has also been allocated to ministry of agriculture for the procurement of hybrid and improved maize seed varieties which will be distributed as part of the FISP. Smallholder farmers are therefore guaranteed that they will receive coupons for procuring fertilizers and maize seeds,î he said pointing out, ìAs His Excellency, the president announced in the state of the nation address, the fertilizers under this program will be sold at a uniform subsidised price of K500 (US$3) per bag. Chisinga observes that the implementation of the FISP and the subsequent dominance of fertilizers and hybrid maize are a result of political manoeuvring by politicians and multinational companies to succeed in fixing the problem of chronic food insecurity which is at the centre of the country’s political economy. The overwhelming political support of FISP completely overshadows the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Securities road map which outlined how Malawi could attain a sustainable green revolution,î he warns. The professor observes that the government has presently abandoned the national breeding programme which was aimed at fostering local companies to breed local seed varieties.

The crumbling of the public sector breeding programmes has meant that the country has become almost entirely dependent on the multinational seed companies for the bulk of improved seed supply although they are not necessarily of the ideal quality for the local agronomic conditions,î he says adding that this has been reinforced by the shrewd business strategies of multinational companies that have succeeded to marginalise the national breeding programme which he claims has further been a culprit of governmentís interest  in finding quick solutions to the enduring problem of food insecurity.Malawiís policy framework on seed production does not oblige multi nationals to breed seeds in the country except for purposes of testing prior to the release of new varieties. ìConsequently, there is very little that can be done even if the varieties are not suitable to the local agronomic conditions because the country is almost entirely dependent on the multinational companies for improved seed supply,î says Chisinga.  The professor argues that the multinational companies seed products are in tune with the interests of both donors and government officials in that they are both interested in high yielding maize varieties as a quick fix to the food security situation in Malawi. It therefore does not really matter as long as the seed products are proven to be high yielding although they may not necessarily be fully amenable to the local agronomic conditions,î says Chisinga. He adds that the multinational companies do not make much effort to bring onto the local market the best products because of the apparent limited market comprising of rural poor. ìThis leaves farmers with seeds that do not contain the latest improvements to deal with drought, pests or nutritional quality of the grain.

Chisinga advises government to spend most of its time on its normal agricultural development programmes such as research and extension in order to enable farmers have a wide range of choice in the seed market since the current market is largely buoyed by special input support programme. He observes that the seed companies have exploited the attendant policy environment to their advantage which has been propped up by donors and government in a way that has marginalised the national breeding programme and local seed companies. This has, in turn, reduced the range of crop portfolio readily available to farmers yet crop diversification is extremely important for the Malawian farmer following the increasingly fragile climatic patterns which makes the attainment of food security highly unpredictable,î he says. The national breeding programme has previously produced varieties of beans, cowpeas and soya beans but these remain highly inaccessible to farmers since multinational seed companies which control about 90 percent of the market do not deal with the national breeding programme despite crop diversification being crucial to the Malawian farmer.


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