Malawi shifts focus to nutrition tackle food crisis


A nutrition act and new crops are at the centre of the Malawi government’s latest attempts to overcome the effects of annual food shortages that affect more than 10% of the population.

From October, President Joyce Banda’s government says it will give away 60,000 goats to needy families on condition that they pass on the goats’ kids to designated neighbours. The landlocked south-east African country is also drafting a nutrition act that will ban the sale of non-fortified basic foodstuffs.

Senior civil servants claim the moves mark a departure from farming policies that simply aimed to fill people up with staple maize in lean times. Food shortages affect 1.6 million people every year, and an estimated 47% of children have stunted growth because of undernutrition, making them more vulnerable to illness and learning difficulties.

Mary Shawa, the principal secretary for gender, said the nutrition act will send a signal that Banda, in power since April, considers food security a high priority. “Childhood stunting has a direct impact on the economy. It is clear that nutrition needs to be tackled across several sectors, including agriculture, education, local government and academia, and that is what we are doing,” she said.

Jeffrey Luhanga, principal secretary for agriculture and food security, said stabilising food supply was his priority. Subsidies will increasingly focus on encouraging farmers to grow protein-rich crops and crops that can be exported or processed in the country, he said. “In maize, you have starch but you also need lots of protein.” Malawi, whose economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, has become something of a laboratory for food policy since 2004, when former president Bingu wa Mutharika defied resistance from donors and introduced a generous seed and fertiliser subsidy programme. After years of relying on food aid, in 2005 Malawi produced a grain surplus of more than 500,000 tonnes. The country repeated the feat in 2007 and increased its surplus in 2008.

At the UN general assembly in 2008, Mutharika proclaimed that his “green revolution” was a recipe for “Africa to feed the world”. To prove his point, he sent 150 tonnes of rice to Haiti after the earthquake there in January 2010.

But Mutharika died halfway through a second term during which the country was almost bankrupted by nepotism, corruption and his highly personalised “green revolution”. He was replaced by his deputy, Banda.

“The subsidy programme was producing too much maize,” said Luhanga.

“The new government has introduced a 1.6bn kwacha ($5.5m) subsidy programme for 1.5m farmers to grow maize but also groundnuts, soya, legumes and wheat. We are looking at nutrition but also income diversity and ways of improving soil fertility through crop choices.” The initiative to give away goats – similar to Rwanda’s cows-for-peace reconciliation programme – will cost the government 900m kwachas ($3m) this year. “The beauty of it [the plan] is that a goat can produce four kids in a year, allowing for a rapid expansion of the livestock pass-on programme,” said Luhanga.

In the long term, Malawi needs to become an exporter of processed foodstuffs, he said. “We need to be able to offer value-added products like butter from our own milk and yarn from our cotton. We are landlocked and it is unrealistic to expect an income from putting raw materials on the road.” However, Malawi has a long way to go and a potentially restive population to deal with. Last year, protesters rioted against the cost of living and the suspension of European aid that had provided 40% of the country’s revenues.

Shortly after coming to power, Banda devalued the kwacha, a measure welcomed by the donors but which created 25% inflation. Since 2009, the country has been gripped by a fuel shortage, medicine is in short supply and strikes are constant in many sectors, with around 169,000 civil servants waiting to be paid.

Last week, the arrival of the new British high commissioner, Michael Nevin, revived diplomatic relations between Malawi and its biggest foreign donor more than a year after Nevin’s predecessor, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, was ordered to leave the country for criticising Muharika.

But Nevin warned that British bilateral aid would not be forthcoming until Malawi appoints someone to head its anti-corruption bureau. The new candidate must be approved by the public appointments office, which is stuffed with people from Mutharika’s government who fear being targeted in sleaze investigations.

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