Enslaved to maize: Why Malawi need to re-think its agricultural future

Maize is a political crop that has essentially enslaved Malawi as a nation. Despite being the staple diet of millions of ordinary Malawians, maize is not only one of the least nutritious foodstuffs in Malawi, but our blinkered monoculture production of it is both outdated and increasingly expensive.

Since it requires enormous amounts of water in order to mature properly, erratic weather systems and frequently failing rains over the past few decades have made it progressively difficult to cultivate without using harmful fertilisers, which only serve to further degrade the already-exhausted soil. Recklessly placing the nation’s food security in the careworn hands of donor goodwill to prop up the farm input subsidy program (FISP), Malawi is trapped in a downward spiral, not least because the state’s calculated provision of one maize fertiliser coupon per family per farming season is always guaranteed to be a vote winner.

The big dilemma is that maize is truly entrenched in Malawian culture, even though it actually originated from South America in the early 19th century. Initially, the crop did well because most parts of sub-Saharan Africa received enough rains.  But now, due to the increasingly devastating effects of climate change, it is proving it extremely difficult to grow, and our over-dependence on it, is a serious threat the country’s food security. In the 2011/12 overall national budget, a massive 19 per cent was spent on agriculture, with the majority of this channelled into the FISP to buy maize seeds and fertilizer.

Malita shows off her maize field

Showing off her maize field

While there have been many calls to diversify food production into cultivating crops such as easily-stored sweet potatoes and nitrogen-fixing legumes like soybeans, those voices cannot be match in loudness to those in the Government and others that insist on committing resources to the unrelenting production of maize.

Malawi’s enormous agricultural spend is both a blessing and curse of course. Despite poor rains, the years between 2005 and 2009 stand out as a good example when Malawi was food secure because of the FISP. On the other hand however, investment in maize production has reduced expenditures in other equally important sectors such as health, education and infrastructure. Indeed, the agricultural budget could have been invested in farming innovation and farmer knowledge, more extension workers, research, and dissemination of methods to produce alternative crops in ways that are more sustainable.

The most painful fact is that that the FISP has been supported by the international donor community either through loans and grants, and the Malawian Government has failed to come up with sustainable exit to the programme. Surely it is irresponsible for any government to allow the food security situation to become dependent on the benevolence of donors?

There are also real concerns about rapid population growth and the resultant land shortages affecting crop production, and maize in particular. Cities are growing in Africa, as is the population of Malawi, and this naturally results in housing eating away at surrounding land that was formerly used for agricultural purposes. In 2009 Malawi was reported to be the fastest urbanising country in Africa and the process is proving to be unstoppable now. However, I believe we that still have plenty of land in Malawi that is still idle, both along the Lake and even in the uplands. Land reform is critical but it is not yet impacting crop production in Malawi as much as other factors are.

What is a clear is that our agricultural land is badly managed in many ways, due to the severe lack of extension workers to help advise farmers on new ways to work their land to the best advantage. In the wake of climate change, we need to kick start the processes desperately needed to regenerate our soils through conservation agriculture, organic manure production, and other sustainable farming approaches. Agriculture is becoming less and less profitable, and people no longer really believe that their wealth and security can come from agriculture alone.

Yes, as a nation we are dependent on agriculture, but most farmers, especially the subsistence peasant farmers, report dwindling revenues from agriculture due to climate change, the high cost of fertilisers, and a lack of value chain development initiatives such as food processing plants, intelligent crop storage, and improved transport to markets.

My sense is this; for Malawi to improve her national economy through agriculture, we cannot do it through the hoe and spade. We need to mechanise. We need to craft a programme that will graduate semi-commercial farmers to fully fledged commercial farmers, and for this to be possible we need to produce more and better quality crops, and embrace added value initiatives, including switching to more sustainable farming practices and developing the entire market system for alternative crops. This requires far more collaboration between the Malawian government, farmer organisations, buyers, and input and service providers than is currently being demonstrated. It really is the only practical way to exploit the international market.

Finally, we need to manage our obsession with tobacco as a commercial export crop. Once our former top foreign exchange earner, it is now a pariah crop in internationally circles, and any further investment in tobacco is a slow suicide.

  • Written by Vitu Chinoko, programme officer at Christian Aid Malawi, and Emma Pomfret
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