The phrase on the lips of many Malawians these days, particularly in the north of the country is: “There will be hunger this year.”
In Karonga District, prolonged hot, dry spells caused maize crops in the southern part of the district to wilt. The dry spell was followed by heavy rains, which not only knocked down the wilting maize but also brought down several houses, affecting scores of people. In the northern part of the district, flooding filled rice paddies with sand, virtually burying the crop.
Rumphi and Mzimba districts - the hub of maize production in Malawi’s northern region - were also hit by dry spells starting from February.
As a result of the weather conditions, most farmers in the region harvested little maize. In fact, an annual food security forecast by the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) - composed of the government, UN agencies and NGOs - predicted that 21 of the country’s 28 districts will face varying degrees of food insecurity until the next harvest in March 2014, with the northern region most severely affected.
Costs to rise
Across the region, residents have started buying and storing bags of maize to prepare for the steep price increases that normally accompany the peak of the lean season.
“Unlike in the past, when vendors were the ones buying the maize, most of those buying the maize this time around are people who say they are just stocking it for domestic use,” said Francis Chirwa, a farmer from Chitipa District, who was selling some of his maize.
Currently maize is selling at between 120 and 130 kwacha (between US$0.36 and $0.39) per kilogramme at points of production in rural areas. The MVAC report projects that prices will increase to 200 kwacha (about $0.60) per kilogramme by the peak lean period, which will fall between December 2013 and January 2014.
The MVAC report projected a slight increase in total maize production compared to last year, with a surplus of 194,000 metric tons beyond the national food requirement. However, the report also estimated that nearly 1.5 million people - representing 9.5 percent of the country’s total population - would need food assistance equivalent to 57,346 metric tons of maize over the coming months.
In its July to December 2013 food security outlook, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) suggested that the maize surplus could be less than projected because of a possible over-estimate of the amount of maize produced from the irrigated farming sector, which failed to take into account the lowered water table resulting from erratic rains.
The FEWSNET report also noted that rain-fed maize production was down by 27 per cent compared to last year in the area covered by the Mzuzu Agricultural Development Division (ADD) in the north and by 19 per cent in the central region areas covered by Kasungu ADD.
Meanwhile, the MVAC report attributes the maize surplus to the government’s Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP), which targets more than a million poor smallholder farmers with subsidised inputs such as fertilizer and seed. However, John Paul, project manager for the Building Resilience to Climate Change project run by the NGO Total Land Care, pointed out that “the success of the FISP lies in favourable weather conditions”.
“Most parts of the country have not received favourable rains over the past two years or so, and this period has exposed how vulnerable the FISP is,” he told IRIN. “There is a need for the implementation of the FISP to incorporate conservation agriculture technologies, such as maximum soil cover and limited tilling, as a way of fighting off the effects of dry spells.”
Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, made similar observations after completing an 11-day mission to Malawi in July. In a strongly worded statement, De Schutter urged the government to rethink its focus on the FISP, which, with its dependence on costly fertilizer imports, was using up more than half of the Ministry of Agriculture’s budget and crowding out spending on other priorities, but failing to rid Malawi of chronic food insecurity and high levels of malnutrition.
“From a purely agronomic point of view, inorganic fertilizers may be masking soil nutrient depletion, rather than correcting it,” said De Schutter, adding that this helped explain why the country had seen an initial increase in yields of maize and other cereals following the introduction of the FISP between 2005 and 2009, which had been followed by a levelling off starting in 2010.
De Schutter recommended promoting the cultivation of other crops besides maize, in particular legumes, as a way of replenishing depleted soils and improving children’s diets. He also proposed a “brown revolution” which would focus on the use of organic fertilizers.