Committed leadership key to improving smallholder agriculture productivity in Malawi

One of the most serious errors made by the post-democratic Malawian regimes has been the lack of a committed political leadership to give sincere priority to smallholder agriculture. Unlike during the one party MCP rule where the late Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda paid more attention on this sector of agriculture which saw Malawi being food sufficient, the democratic era has seen little being done.

A credit also be given to the DPP regime of 2004-2009 which saw at least the prioritization of traditional agriculture, but I still believe more should have been done to ensure a continual rise in smallholder agriculture productivity which would have set Malawi on a different page by now.

Vice President Saulos Chilima in caps   appreciates Water Carrier plants in Galilee
Vice President Saulos Chilima in caps appreciates Water Carrier plants in Galilee

Thus, the democratic era beginning 1994 has seen more talk with less action on the ground. Today, Malawi is mostly hungry; a 40km drive to the rural areas can make you think we are living in a different Malawi due to the food insufficiency in the homes of the villagers.

And what even shocks me the most is the fact that governments in rich countries where farmers are few in number and well to do, tend to be devoted to investments in farming more than in Malawi where hunger continues to terrorize and productivity is way behind. It is sad that after all the talking, funding by the international community, capacity building by agricultural related NGOs, the needed long term Public-Sector investment into this key sector are still not enough.

Agriculture is one of the highest contributor to Malawi’s GDP such that divorcing issues of smallholder agricultural development from issues of governance and politics is an error. This write up aims at exposing some shortfalls in this sector and suggesting a pragmatic workable solution that can lead to increased smallholder agriculture productivity in Malawi.

It always feels good to brag about originality from the warm heart of Africa which houses the third largest lake on the continent- Lake Malawi but the fact that the country continues to be food insecure with such large masses of water stretching from the Northern to the Southern region is a disgrace!

My secondary school knowledge in Agriculture on the importance of water control and irrigation management, irrigation and drainage system as a way of avoiding food shortage and improving agriculture productivity tells me that there is more that can be done with our water. Egypt with just the Nile river but is able to produce crops and have food but Malawi with not only Lake Malawi but also the Long Shire river cannot produce more to sustain ourselves. Lakes and rivers are mostly for fishing, worse still illegal fishing. What a shame! Such anti-developmental thinking cannot take us anywhere.

Secondly, poor mechanization is a set-back. 50 years of independence and yet majority of our traditional farmers still rely on manual labour working tirelessly as if its thangata. We must understand that man tires and cannot keep on relying on manual labour if high yields are to be realized. In addition, in this modern age of child rights it means children are in school hence most likely it is the parents that will be working in the field. There is no way a normal man can work in the garden continuously for seven or ten hours. In two hours one is likely to be exhausted.

On the other hand when a farmer is using a machine such as a tractor they are able to do more work within a few hours. Therefore, when such machines are not available it means a very little portion of land is cultivated leading to low productivity which ends up being sold so that the household can meet other needs living little for home consumption.

Finally, there has been politicization of agriculture. One disorder that has plagued Malawi is the politicization of almost everything. Those who are appointed to positions should in one way be on the same page with the government of the day- be it in terms of ethnic, regional or political affiliation.

This has seen those who would have the technical know-how being sidelined just because they are not affiliated to the political masters of the day. Such appointments for the sake of appeasement have in one way or the other also slowed down the efforts in the Ministry of Agriculture since experts who would do better are left out in favour of those who have an allegiance but lack the technical capacity to do the work. This in the end leads to poor planning, poor policy formulation and analysis.

In addition, poor budgetary outlays for agricultural programs implementation and the monitoring and evaluation of the programs also hamper the sector. As a result, any error at the top is also likely to affect the poor farmer at the bottom of the chain as they might continuously lack the knowledge on let’s say modern agriculture because they have not been reached due to poor program formulation, monitoring and evaluation.

These are some of the challenges that have been faced. But enough said, what is the solution? A new government is now in place, just four months old. I hope it is able to learn from the past regimes; borrow the successful ideas and add more value so that smallholder agriculture productivity does well. It is time to be practical, enough of the theory. We need the government not just to say but do what it says.

A single most important solution in getting smallholder agriculture moving forward in Malawi is a committed Political Leadership. A devoted political will by our beloved politicians, parliamentarians, policy makers and Ministries of Economic Planning and Finance can do our farmers well. Greater economic commitment to agriculture will provide a more accepting policy atmosphere. This will eventually create the suitable setting for long-term and workable investments especially from the private sector.

One way of creating a promising agricultural policy is the solidification of governance and institutions. It’s time we went back to the 1960s and 1970s ways whereby farmers were provided with inputs, credit services by public institutions. It is these credits for instance that will help them in purchasing seeds and machinery.

Subsidy on machinery would also help as this would encourage many smallholder farmers to buy them hence increasing their ability to produce more. Furthermore, government needs to ensure that action is taken on out lakes and rivers so that the water may be drawn to the inland and irrigation can run all year round making our farmers produce all year round.

There is more to just recreation; we can use our water for irrigation. Smallholder farmers need public policy and institutional support that will help them in learning modern agriculture methods and a passionate political leadership is key to so this fulfilled.

All in all, the importance of improving smallholder agriculture productivity in Malawi is central because nearly 70% of the population lives in the rural and survives on farming. Most of these people have not gone far with education so their social-economic fortune is largely dependent on improving their agriculture productivity. Agriculture is the backbone of Malawi. The efforts by the past regimes we have had since the birth of democracy in 1994 cannot be undermined.

However, the valuable long term public-sector investment into this key sector are still lacking and usually what is said does not translate to the reality on the ground. Therefore, this calls for a main elevation in the commitment of the Political Leadership as well as financial dedication of our new government to smallholder agriculture to increase its productivity.

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