It’s mid-morning on a dusty road to Lisungwi market in Neno, southern Malawi, and Bertha Cham’bwinja is sitting under the shade of an acacia tree resting from the scorching sun, a 20-kg bag of maize by her side.
“It has been extremely hot this January,” she says. The rains should have begun around December, but this is an El Niño year and the skies have been alarmingly clear.
Cham’bwinja had travelled six kilometers from her house to the depot of the state-run Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC), which sells subsidised maize. This is her return journey and she has four kilometers still to go before she reaches home.
The journey is not her major concern. Her worry is how to feed her three children, and the coming harvest. Without decent rains she knows it will be another bad year. “The crops in our gardens are not promising and the rains are not pouring,” she told IRIN.
As a result of last season’s failed crop across much of Malawi, Cham’bwinja is among 431,000 people benefitting from a cash-to-buy food initiative run by the World Food Programme. Overall, 2.86 million Malawians are "food insecure" (they lack access to sufficient food to lead healthy and active lives), the result of a double-blow of floods and drought last year.
Cham’bwinja is grateful for WFP’s cash, but says the 20kg of maize grain she has just bought from ADMARC won’t last her family a week. The stipend provided by WFP is roughly $20 a month and does include the cost of a 50kg sack of maize.
But balancing food needs for a household takes some juggling. “We are going through hard times and can’t afford anything else but maize flour porridge for breakfast. So if we use this flour for lunch and dinner, it’s just too little,” said Cham’bwinja.
Vegetables at least should be part of her family’s diet. Processed maize flour fills the stomach, but it’s extremely low in the nutrients that especially growing children need.
The government has bought 55,000 metric tonnes of maize from neighbouring Zambia and in addition has released stocks from its emergency reserve. But logistical problems and a booming black market are causing shortages of the staple cereal.
When IRIN visited the southern districts of Balaka, Neno, Chikhwawa and Mulanje, and the central district of Ntcheu, a 50kg bag of maize grain was being sold by ADMARC for roughly $7. But on the parallel market, it was going for between $13 and $19 a bag – a crippling amount for poor families.
The huge price differential has resulted in chaotic scenes at ADMARC depots. It has prompted a furious President Peter Mutharika to warn that any ADMARC employee found selling subsidised maize out the backdoor to profiteering private dealers will face the full weight of the law.
"This is outrageous,” he said in a recent national address. “It is a moral recklessness which I cannot tolerate. I strongly warn anyone against such atrocities. This has to stop immediately.”
But it hasn’t calmed the situation. Continued shortages at ADMARC depots are forcing people to queue from as early as 4am for maize flour.
In some southern and central districts, Malawians are turning to “emergency foods” like wild tubers, which need to be carefully prepared to remove the toxins they contain.
Malawi was the southern Africa country worst-affected by last year’s poor harvest, with output down by 24 percent on the five-year average. If this season’s production is as bad as feared, then the food crisis will last into 2017.
The price of maize is already 175 percent higher in some markets in the south than the three-year average for this time of the year. WFP and its partners have reached some 2.4 million people with food and cash assistance in 24 of Malawi’s 28 districts, and are planning to extend relief operations an additional month, through April.
Two dry seasons in a row have prompted a wake-up call over the threat of climate change, the vulnerability of Malawi’s rain-fed drought sensitive maize crop, and the rural poverty that undermines resilience.
Minister of Agriculture Allan Chiyembekeza has called on farmers to diversify, warning that the government can only do so much. “When there is a calamity, everyone blames government, yet it can only help where it can,” he said.
James Okoth of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization urges the government and farmers to use the latest irrigation technologies to modernise production.
“We also need to encourage subsistence farmers to plant crops that resist the waves of climate change such as cassava and potatoes,” he told IRIN.
But these are hardly new strategies. The importance of irrigation has long been recognised, but a lack of training and the inability of local communities to mobilise finances to maintain irrigation systems has seen both community and state-run projects collapse into disrepair.
Although drought-resistant sorghum and millet are traditional crops, maize – introduced by the British a century ago – has grown to dominate agricultural production, and is now central to the country’s food culture. Maize accounts for 70 percent of most people’s calorific intake.
This is Malawi’s worst food crisis in over a decade. A government farm input programme that subsidises seeds and fertiliser has led to bumper harvests over the years, but hasn’t solved the basic problems facing the poorest producers.
Malawi’s landholdings are generally small and densely cultivated, causing overuse and degradation of marginally productive agricultural land, according to WFP.
The government launched a $146 million appeal last year for its Food Insecurity Response Plan to cope with the current crisis. It remains less than half funded.