Inside Malawi's Food Crisis

By Charles Mkoka

BLANTYRE, Malawi, September 26, 2002 (ENS) - "Yes, we have had famine before. This year it has been very severe because we had nowhere else to go and seek assistance," laments Patrick Katosa, a peasant farmer from Chibungo village in the Lilongwe rural district of Malawi.

"In the past we used to travel to neighboring villages where we could do food-for-work program agreements with the owners having some surplus grain. But not this year. Thank God we were able to get pumpkins and green maize in exchange for farm work after traveling long distances close to the Malawi-Mozambique border," Katosa said.

Several of Katosa's relatives have passed away due to starvation and malnourishment, and so many people in the district have died that he has stopped attending the funerals.


In Ntumodzi, 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Lilongwe, Dorothy David carries home a basket of wild foods. (Photos by W. Othman courtesy World Food Programme)
Across Malawi, the number of people who have died of hunger is much higher this year than last, while others have survived on wild fruits, bush millet and maize husks.

The primary cause of the current food insecurity is the low production last year. Flooding and a drought within the past 12 months has reduced the maize harvest way below what people need to survive. The sale of the strategic food reserves in 2001 and failure to adequately restock them in time is also a factor in the food crisis.

United Nations agencies the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization estimate that up to 3.2 million people in Malawi will be affected by the food shortages by the end of the coming year, They anticipate a food aid requirement of 208,000 metric tons.

In a related development, the National Food Reserve Agency's Board of Directors has fired general manager Henry Gaga citing incompetence and insubordination. Gaga is accused of undermining the authority of the board by granting interest free sale of maize on credit from the national strategic grain reserve to private traders. The board also accused Gaga of not reporting huge debts.

The NFRA controversial decision to sell maize has been blamed widely for the current food crisis in the county.

In the central district of Dowa, about 60 kilometers (40 miles) from Lilongwe, the situation remains unbearable as most people finished eating the maize while it was standing in the field. Others opted for Irish potatoes and lower grade rice that was sold by traders at popular trading centers.


In Kaundama village, Elia Benela points to the place where his family granary used to stand.
In order to get flour for dinner, one has to work the whole day earning about MK50.00 (US$0.60) and with that buy a packet of one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of flour commonly referred to as "walkman" in the village. With that packet of flour, extended families then scramble for the evening meal.

Many farmers did not have time to go to their own gardens to do other farm operations. Time was spent going this way and that way to look for food. Most of the peasant farmers spent time doing piecework at well to do farm owners doing things weeding, tobacco treatment to prepare it for markets at auctions floors.

Due to demand maize prices have skyrocketed too high to be afforded by 65 percent of the 11 million Malawians who survive on less than on US$1 per day.

Most of the maize being sold in the cities of Blantyre and Lilongwe originates from Muloza on the Malawi-Mozambique border and Songwe in Karonga district on the Malawi-Tanzania border. Traders buy the maize and transport it to urban areas where demand is high.

The World Food Program estimated September 12 that the numbers of Malawians threatened with starvation rose from 500,000 to 2.1 million in September. The agency estimates that the number of starving will rise to 3.2 million in December when the crisis starts to peak.

The food crisis in southern Africa has accelerated at a much faster than anticipated pace, as the number of hungry people in the region has swelled by 1.6 million from earlier estimates, the United Nations envoy for the emergency said today.

James Morris, executive director of the World Food Programme and Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Envoy for the humanitarian situation in southern Africa, said that 14.4 million people are now at risk in six countries, up from the 12.8 million previously viewed as vulnerable.

Morris, who has just traveled through the six countries in crisis - Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia - told reporters that the trip was an "extraordinary experience."

Apart from suffering unfavorable weather conditions that had caused drought and sometimes floods, the region is afflicted by HIV/AIDS, Morris said, describing it as "a crisis within the crisis" and one that had been made worse by governance and other political difficulties.


James Morris, heading the UN mission, attended a food distribution to about 2,000 people. Heather Robinson, emergency program coordinator for Concern Universal, one of WFPs implementing partners, explained the registration process. (Photo by B. Barton courtesy WFP)
Morris, who visited Malawi September 12, said, "I have been greatly heartened by the clear commitment and relentless effort of relief workers and Malawian communities to meet the tremendous challenge they face" he said. "But while major steps have already been made the magnitude of the crisis demands even greater response over the coming months."

While in the country, Morris met top government officials on the food crisis and indicated the willingness of China, India, and South Korea to help. He witnessed the donation of 60 trucks from the Norwegian government as the international community reaches out help deliver maize to remote areas of the country.

But only 57 percent of the resources pledged by donors have been received, the WFP said. The agency said $62 million of the $144 million requested is still needed for food and non-food assistance.

The aid shortfall directly affects people in the villages of Malawi. In the village of Mdala in the southern part of the country, 55 year old Antonio Mainje is surviving on maize husks. A recently retired civil servant who was working as a laborer, Mainje has started asking well wishers to give him their husks after the maize was pounded out to brace himself for the looming threat ahead.

The food crisis has also stirred up theft in his area as loafers have nothing else to do apart from stealing. "I almost lost all my four goats recently after thieves stole them from where they are housed," he said. "Fortunately I was tipped that a nearby butchery was about to slaughter some goats the following morning. I rushed over only to find they are mine."

Conservationist Paul Taylor said, "There is maize shortage in the country and not famine. The people are used to maize as their staple food and are reluctant to accept other food like rice."


In Ntumodzi, Helen Mripe is devastated. Floods and erratic rainfall have rotted or damaged most of this year's maize harvest.
"People in rural areas are basically short of maize. There has been emphasis on maize growing yearly on the same soils and yields are getting smaller and smaller and the soils have been depleted severely," Taylor said. Many farmers cannot afford fertilizer due to exorbitant prices, so Taylor suggests compost made from dead leaves and grass with water added.

Malawi Minister of Agriculture Aleke Banda bemoaned laziness among some farmers as contributing to food insecurity. He emphasized that despite repeated appeals from President Bakili Muluzi to farmers to prepare their gardens earlier in readiness for the first rains, some farmers have not done so.

Good rains are expected this year, according to Director of Meteorological Services Donald Kamdonyo. "In spite of El Nino, Malawi is expected to receive favorable rainfall. With the weak El Nino we should not expect strong rains, however dry spells should not be ruled out," he said.

"The rains are likely to cause flooding and waterlogging in same areas of the country due to heavy silting in rivers and others waterways," Kamdonyo warned.

The prospects for the 2002-2003 rainfall season have been produced with additional input from the Southern Africa Regional Climate Outlook Forum after experts met in Harare, Zimbabwe. With inputs supplied to farmers and rainfall pattern being promising, yields are expected to be promising as well next season.

Emmanuel Chingamba, program manager for the Ministry of Agriculture's Blantyre Agriculture Development Division said the government is promoting early garden preparation in the print and electronic media, and by working with local politicians and religious leaders.

"A campaign on compost making is currently underway, officially opened by the President, he said.

Chingamba said that the ministry is encouraging drought tolerant crops like cassava and sweet potatoes.

Through its extension staff, the ministry is establishing a Village Seed Bank system so that after harvesting, farmers can deposit their seeds with each Village Headman in order to ensure sufficient seeds during the next planting period.