Malawi: Empty Stomachs Despite Agricultural Growth

Ty Butler, Senior Correspondent
International Development and Conflict
Last Modified: 23:59 p.m. DST, 26 August 2013

LILONGWE, Malawi – Home to almost half of the world’s unused arable land, Sub-Saharan Africa has been characterized as a area of immense agricultural potential. The region though has traditionally experienced a fairly difficult time with its modern agricultural markets which have some of the lowest average yields per hectare of land in the world.

Sub-Saharan agricultural markets face many challenges, from poor related institutions and neglect within government budgeting, to land degradation and population density pressures. These problematic agricultural settings have corresponded with similarly difficult hurdles in achieving food security for domestic populations.

Agricultural challenges can be especially pungent for landlocked countries which routinely face 50% higher than average transportation costs (affecting the prices of important inputs such as fertilizer and seeds), and often depend on the good governance of their neighbors.

In 2006, the small landlocked country of Malawi surprised many in the development community when it announced relative food independence after having doubled its maize output in only one year.  In 2005 Malawi was heavily dependent on international food aid, a requirement to help feed almost half of its population. Seeking to change this, the country channeled significant funds into an agricultural subsidy program which targeted impoverished small plot farmers. These farmers were provided with coupons for fertilizer (an agricultural input which is generally two to six times more expensive in Sub-Saharan Africa than elsewhere in the world) and genetically modified seeds (which face similar pricing troubles).

The success of the Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP) didn’t stop with the achieving of food independence.  Continued agricultural growth not only cut domestic prices of maize by 50%, thus making it more affordable to buy, but also allowed Malawi to start exporting large amounts of maize to its neighbors in 2007.

Yet jumping forward to the present day, the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) has warned of significant food insecurity affecting an estimated 1.5 million people within the country until March 2014 (the next projected maize harvest). So what happened to the surplus that Malawi had been enjoying? While growth rates due to the FISP have started to stagnate since 2010, the maize surplus still exists; with the country expecting to produce 194,000 metric tons more than is needed for domestic consumption.

Instead, current food insecurity problems stem from poverty coupled with unexpected shocks to maize production via failing rains which result in higher food prices.  While the FISP has allowed Malawi to grow its agricultural output with amazing speed, it has also proven particularly vulnerable to seasonal weather shifts.

Given significantly slowing agricultural growth rates, revealed vulnerabilities, and continued food insecurity and malnourishment, the FISP has proven to be a relatively successful program, but not an end all solution for a healthy agricultural system within Malawi. Furthermore, the FISP eats up over half of Malawi’s agricultural budget which can prevent other important aspects of a long run solution from getting full funding and consideration.

Luckily, Malawi has devoted a lot of attention to its agricultural sector and has been laying the logistical, physical, and educational infrastructure for the construction of a more robust agricultural market. In an effort to address land grievances from its colonial past, Malawi managed to launch a willing seller willing buyer (WSWB) pilot program for land redistribution. The pilot performed even better than expected. Those partaking in the WSWB program (over 15,000 rural poor households) saw their average annual incomes increase by 40%, while the entire program netted impressive general economic rates of return to the tune of 20%.

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