Malawi and its unbroken cycle of hunger


Over the past few years, Malawi Government has invested billions of kwacha in the Farm Input Subsidy (Fisp) in an effort to achieve food security both at national and household level.

In the 2010/2011 budget, it was K19.7 billion and it soared to K21.9 billion in 2011/12 fiscal year.

In the 2012/2013 plan—against the background of an austerity budget—government has not just almost doubled the allocation to K40.6 billion, it has maintained the price of buying fertiliser at K500, and also increased the beneficiaries to 1.5 million this year. All this in the face of devaluation and floatation of the kwacha,

The billions, arguably, could have, at least helped to break the cycle of hunger in the country. But that is not the case.

Records show that the continued rise of billions invested in Fisp correspond, notoriously, with numbers of food insecure people in the country.

In 2009, the Malawi Vulnerable Assessment Committee (Mvac) reported 1.5 million Malawians, especially in the Southern Region, were food insecure.

The number dropped a little to 1.1 million in 2010, according to a report by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fewsnet). The drop increased sharply in last year’s Mvac assessment which put the food insecure at 200 000.

There has been a drastic change this year.

Not just because 1.6 million Malawians from 15 of the country’s 28 districts are food insecure. But, according to the report, the figure represents eight times as many Malawians in need of food assistance during the 2012/2013 food consumption period compared to the lean season.

Evidently, despite some recordable success, Fisp, it shows, is not the solution to breaking the cycle of hunger in Malawi.

“We need to invest in more long term solutions to build resilience and break the cycle of hunger,” says Abdoulaye Diop, World Food Programme (WFP) country director.

But what could such investments be?

Dr Patson Nalivata, a soil expert and lecturer at Bunda College, argues that breaking the hunger cycle in Malawi needs serious investment in combating climate change.

“Crop failure in the country is principally an effect of climate change,” he argues.

Nalivata’s argument is true of Ambasoni Village, an impoverished community in group village head Therere, T/A Ngabu, Chikhwawa, which was devastated by crop failure.

The soil is dry and infertile. Asked what could be the way out, the locals argue they are all looking to government for help.

“We don’t know what to do. We just want government to help us,” says Janet Khundiwe, a divorced mother of eight who has lived in the village all her life.

Of course, with support from government, WFP has already rolled out relief food distribution to the affected districts.

But the margin between the scale of the vulnerable and the response at hand is just too wide. Relief food is just a reactive response to a problem that requires deeper redress.

“We need to raise the profile of the organic matter in the soil. Currently, most of the soils in the country have about 1.4 percent of organic matter. This is tragic for farming.

“It means if a drought exceeds three weeks, even with fertiliser, the root cannot access the nutrients from the soil,” says Nalivata.

He adds that the country needs strong research and investment in integrated soil fertility management.

“We need to work on how we can raise the organic matter of the soils. How we can manage to let the little water infiltrate in the soil,” he says.

Currently, according to Nalivata, Bunda College is involved in various research projects on the same. They are intercropping leguminous crops to help add the organic profile of soils.

But does the solution lie in the soil?

Michael Jana, a political economist studying for his PhD in South Africa, has researched widely and published a lot on the political economy of agriculture in the country.

He argues that the country’s needs to review its agriculture sector; something radical, in terms of organisation, needs to come into play.

“If this country is to move from poverty, it should invest in agriculture to eventually phase out subsistence farming and bring about commercial farming, create jobs, bring good returns to capital and hopefully be able to fund and develop the industrial sector,” he says.

And he doesn’t stop there.

“Subsistence farming is essentially hand-to-mouth and can be costly to subsidise in the long run; government would rather gradually subsidise commercial farming that has the potential of producing profits and creating jobs both in that sector and other sectors,” he adds.

However, Jana is quick to point out that it is hard for Malawians to embark on any meaningful commercial farming if they have no title to their land.

Surely, breaking the cycle of hunger in the country is quite a big deal. There is a lot involved.

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