Hunger is again stalking Malawi, with 2.8 million people at risk in a country recently lauded for slashing malnutrition rates. Floods and drought have hit the staple maize crop, exposing the fragility of Malawi’s progress, which was partly rooted in a fertilizer grant for small-scale farmers that the cash-strapped government, now starved of donor funds, can ill afford.
The situation has exposed the fragility of gains which had seen Malawi’s rates of malnutrition slashed in the past two decades. The success was in part rooted in a fertilizer grant for small-scale farmers.
But now the government, starved of donor funds following a graft scandal over two years ago, can ill afford such payments and says it must scale down the program.
“The government has always promised to give us coupons to buy subsidized fertilizer. But the coupons are in our houses now. We failed to buy because in some cases they said there is no fertilizer and also the price is high for poor people in the village. Decades ago the president then used to offer affordable prices for fertilizer to enable everyone access it and this is what the whole world would like to see,” said Kaziputa.
Launched in 2005, the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP) provides qualifying farmers – those with limited income but a plot of productive land – with two coupons which can be redeemed for two 50-kg bags of fertilizer. The recipients make a modest contribution, with the government footing most of the bill.
Because the government is subsidizing the production of maize – the main source of calories for many poor households – it also bans the export of the grain.
The program is credited by the government and some aid agencies with lifting maize production and cutting hunger.
But the program has also had unintended consequences.
The focus on food security, including the ban on maize exports, has discouraged investment in more productive commercial farming methods.
“I am glad I have received this relief food. I literally have got nothing at home and with the rains this late, I will harvest nothing,” said Efrida Daka.
“The major problem that we are experiencing because of this drought is malnutrition among our children. SO many of them are seriously malnourished and they lack vitamins. We spend much time at the hospital with them. And this is pathetic,” said Mikison Mbewe.
Ironically, the policies aimed at ensuring basic food security are partly to blame for a cycle of rural poverty and aid dependency in this land-locked African nation, leaving the population vulnerable to climate shocks, economists say.
The subsidies alone are not enough.
“Subsidy can only succeed if there is sufficient rain. Not too much, not too little. Fertilizers will do nothing if the soil is dry. So, there must be good water in the soil. If there are no rains at least water should come from irrigation. So when we tackle the subsidy thing we must look at the question of when there is no rain what do we do? The answer is irrigation,” said Desmond Phiri, a Lilongwe based economist.
Prospects for the rainy season are uncertain because of El Nino, which is expected to cause wetter than average conditions in the north and drier than average conditions in the south.
The poorest regions of the world are among the hardest hit and least able to cope.