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MALAWI: Extra Money Allocated for Drought Relief

Charles Mpaka

BLANTYRE, Feb 25 2010 (IPS) - Maize farmer Anita Yunus has lived near the Mulanje Mountain in southern Malawi for over 30 years. And she does not remember there ever being a drought in the area.

While there have been four severe droughts in Malawi in the past 25 years, the Mulanje region was not affected by these. So this year’s drought is the first Yunus has experienced and she is deeply worried.

“I don’t know what punishment this is,” the 53-year-old tells IPS. “We have always enjoyed very good rains, maybe because of the mountain, but now I don’t know how to explain what we have this time.”

According to government records, last year the southern region produced a third of Malawi’s total annual maize harvest of 3.5 million tonnes.

Mulanje is one of the major maize-producing districts in Malawi. Here 81 percent of the 530,000 people survive on subsistence farming. During harvest, residents from Blantyre rush to Mulanje to buy cheap maize.

Apart from Mulanje, the dry spell has hit six other districts in the southern and central region. In Malawi, the rainy season often starts in early December and runs up to March. But in these districts rainfall has either not fallen or has been irregular since December.

Unofficial figures estimate that over 30,000 hectares of crop fields have been affected and that up to 120,000 families (an average of 720,000 people) could need food assistance in the region.

Government officials rank Mulanje as among the “badly hit” regions that will need food aid.

Quoting officials from the agriculture development divisions, local newspapers said last week that national food production could drop by 30 percent and that the south alone could register a drop of 60 percent compared to last year.

Government is now stepping in and has allocated 76 million dollars in the annual budget for food relief. According to the ministry of finance, the money is to be spent purchasing food for distribution to affected households.

President Bingu wa Mutharika, also the country’s minister of agriculture and the African Union chair, made a surprise tour of the major maize-producing areas in the south on Feb. 21.

He said Malawi would face a decline in food production this year but insisted that the country would still harvest enough to feed itself. There will not be surplus for export, he said.

Yunus, a widow, is not sure if she and her three children will survive if she does not harvest any maize this year.

“That (there will be enough food for the country) is for politicians to say. They talk about everyone. I am talking about myself and a few other families that I know of,” says Yunus.

Government says Malawi requires 2.4 million tonnes of maize to feed its 13 million people and that last season the country produced a surplus of 1.3 million metric tonnes.

According to economic policy analyst, Mavuto Bamusi, Malawi may have a national surplus but food security at household level is still an issue. He says this is partially because maize is not easily available and also because some households are too poor to buy the commodity.

“We have the maize in the national silos. Many households in Malawi do not have food throughout the year. This (brings) to the fore how government should spend this extra budget,” he says.

National coordinator for Civil Society Agriculture Network (Cisanet), Victor Mhoni, says the drought has placed a spotlight on Malawi’s reliance on maize as a staple food crop.

“As long as we continue to fill our food basket with maize only and rely on rain-fed agriculture, we are still a vulnerable country,” says Mhoni.

Apart from maize, Malawi also grows food crops such as cassava, rice and potatoes. But there is a tradition among Malawians to say that they have not eaten anything when they have had cassava or potatoes for lunch. Nsima (pap), which is made from maize flour, is the favourite meal.

Mhoni also accuses government of perpetuating this reliance on maize for food by encouraging farmers, especially those in districts that do well in other crops, to grow maize. Ministry of agriculture officials told IPS that there are no statistics yet about the number of farmers that have moved to maize farming from other crops.

But a good example is Likoma Island on Lake Malawi. Before the farm input subsidy programme started in 2005, people here used to rely on cassava for food. Now the island largely grows maize, which is slowly replacing cassava as the staple food crop for the 10,000 inhabitants.

“Our farm input subsidy programme has been about maize and fertilisers all across the country even in places that rely on rice and sorghum. The programme, in spite of its good intentions, has promoted that heavy dependence on maize and when it falls short, we are all suffering,” says Mhoni,

Mhoni, however, says the surplus of the past four years means that government will not be importing maize to feed people. Instead, local reserves will be purchased and distributed thereby ensuring that aid will reach those in need faster.

Government says it has stockpiled 140,000 tonnes of maize in the national grain silos found in the three regions of the country. It will also purchase an additional 30,000 tonnes of the grain from estate farmers and traders. The Agriculture Development and Marketing Corporation, a state-run farm produce marketer, says it has stockpiled 45,000 tonnes of maize.

Apart from mid-financial year grants from donors (donor support contributes to 40 percent of Malawi’s annual national budget), the relief fund is also reliant on the Malawi Revenue Authority.

“The (76 million dollars) provision is only an estimate. The full extent of the need is yet to be determined,” says minister of finance, Ken Kandodo.

But Bamusi says if people like Yunus are to be reached, food needs to be widely distributed.

“This money should bring the food to locations where those people that need it get it easily. It must also deal with the issues of pricing because to have food brought into an area is one thing and to have people being able to buy it is another,” he says.

During harvest time when there is a large supply of maize on the market, it sometimes sells at 20 cents per kilogramme. Currently, maize sells at around 40 cents per kilogramme.

Yunus, however, would have preferred a harvest to aid.

“I have been harvesting enough in the past years and was able to sell some to buy a few things for my family. Now I can see how much suffering we will go through if I harvest nothing, if Mulanje harvests nothing. Maize is everything for me,” Yunus says.

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