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Malawi: From Basket Case to Food Basket - Lessons to Make Hunger History
2 July 2009
Without a doubt I vote H.E. Bingu wa Mutharika, the President of the Republic of Malawi, one of the best performing African Presidents. And the reason for it is simple; in 2004 when he came into power he made a pledge: “I will not be a president who goes around begging for food”. Unlike other rhetorical commitments we have often been treated to, he has put his words into action.
Malawi is an agriculture-based economy where agriculture contributes over 80% of export earnings; 38% GDP and supports 85% of the population. Smallholder farming (3.42 million households) contributes 75% of agricultural production. Maize is the staple food, grown by 97% of farming households and consumed by every Malawian. Prior to 2004, Malawi was forced into massive importation of maize for a number of consecutive years due to bad weather and low input uptake, among other factors.
In the 2004/5 season, many parts of the country were hit by prolonged dry spells. Yields in that year dropped to around 0.8 tons/ha, one of the lowest on record. The national production declined to less than 1.2 million Metric Tons, representing a decline of 24% from the previous year, approximately 60% of the estimated national maize food requirement. The whole country, and smallholder farmers in particular, were thrown into high risk and vulnerability.
In a space of three years, between 2005 and 2007, a miracle took place: the country has gone from food deficit of 43% to a food surplus of 57%; productivity increased two-fold from a ton per hectare to over 2 tons. Maize production nearly trebled from 1.23 million metric tons to 3.44 million metric tons. Malawians had enough and to export. As shown in the graph below, in 2009 the miracle is continuing.
How did the miracle take place?
The government doubled its expenditure on agriculture from 7.4% to 14%; scaled up access and affordability of farm inputs through rapid up-scaling of agro-dealers and a smart subsidy programme (through non-transferable coupons) for a whole range of farmers from vulnerable households through hard-working ones and adapters of new technologies.
From food exports and sales to the World Food Programme through the Purchase for Progress Programme, the country has been generating in excess of US120 million annually. This is then ploughed back for further scaling-up of the programme. And to ensure that smallholder farmers graduate faster from reliance on subsidized input for food security the government has embarked on a manure-making campaign; intensified extension and research in agriculture and the Greenbelt Initiative.
In 2003, in what is commonly referred to as the Maputo Protocol, African governments were supposed to have worked towards a similar miracle across the continent. They committed to spend 10% of their national budgets to agriculture in order to ensure food security to their citizens by 2015. However, so far only 6 countries are coming good on this political commitment. Besides Malawi, they include Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and Ethiopia. Nearly 7 years after making the political commitment, 17 countries still spend less than 5% of their national budgets on agriculture.
Malawi Leads Africa in Agriculture Sector
Malawi has restored faith in Africa by demonstrating that the continent need not become the world’s basket case. Effective ways to improve agriculture and combat food insecurity are no longer a secret. In fact they are quite simple: scale up access and affordability of high yielding farm inputs through scaling up agro-dealers; put in place a smart subsidy programme for farmers; close the resource gap by leveraging commercial banks to lend more to agriculture through risk-sharing arrangements; build Africa’s capacity for evidence-based policies by strengthening policy institutions; and make operational policies to promote agro-processing and value addition.
However, the one ingredient that pulls all these solutions together is political will to deliver on commitments that have already been made. As in the case of Malawi, donors may be resistant at the beginning but if the country hangs in there, in the end, as long as the programme is well run and corruption-free, everyone will want to associate with success as did the donor community in Malawi which provides budgetary support: DFID, EU, NORAD, Irish Aid, and World Bank among others. It is time that Africa took the initiative to make hunger history.
Archbishop Njongo Ndungane is the founder and president of African Monitor.