Anyone who has been following this (intermittent!) blog will be aware that Malawi is going through a very difficult time just now. The government is as good as bankrupt, even people in respectable professional jobs are finding it virtually impossible to feed and educate their families and almost three million people have entered an international feeding programme financed by the World Food Programme (WFP). In a country of 16 million people, three million is almost a fifth.
This is not the first time I have visited Malawi during March. At this time of year there never is that much food around. The December to February rains would normally just have been ending; the granaries would be pretty empty and the new crops not yet ready for harvesting. This March, however, is a bit different. The rains, though heavy, only arrived a couple of weeks ago here in central Malawi, getting on for three months late. The south suffered from serious drought during the current growing season 2015/2016 and the southwest and north from flooding during the previous growing season, 2014/2015. When planting has taken place, a lot of seedlings may have died.
This situation is not unique to Malawi. The combination of climate change and El Nino has brought about similar agricultural challenges across a swathe of Eastern and Southern Africa, affecting countries as distant from each other as Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
In Malawi, politicians and public figures have been competing to assign responsibility for the looming catastrophe. It has been widely reported that ADMARC (Agricultural Development Marketing Corporation - the government agency charged with selling subsidised maize to ordinary people) has run out of grain. The MP for Ntchisi North says that in his district ADMARC depots ran out of maize in November. Across the country, women and children have been queuing unsuccessfully for several hours at a time outside individual ADMARC depots. The MP for Dedza West has said that in his area, people are crossing into neighbouring Mozambique to look for food. School dropout rates and absenteeism have increased.
Begging is far more obvious in the capital Lilongwe than it used to be, particularly among the old and among teenage girls with babies. At times like this, girls are at major risk of sexual abuse. Many are removed from school and sold into marriage in order to stabilise their family’s financial situation. They are often discarded after a matter of months and have little option but to return or, indeed, to end up on the streets with even fewer prospects of supporting themselves and their children.
And things don't look as if they are likely to gt much better, at least in the short term. The Director of Planning and Development in northern Rumphi predicts a further 2% drop in food production. His words about the trading of maize at a meeting organised by the National Initiative for Civic Education (NICE) highlight some of the social and gender issues relating to food security in a country where most of the farming is carried out by women:
‘Women had difficulties to purchase maize at ADMARC depots. Please do not allow your husbands to sell the maize because you are the ones that suffered when there is no food.’
The Catholic Bishop of Karonga (northern Malawi) has called on the government to make maize available to the people. He has himself waived normally church collections and tithes and told adherents to feed their hungry families instead. The Minister of Finance, however, has said that 44 truckloads of maize have been brought into the country and a further 50,000 metric tons are to be imported from neighbouring Tanzania. The Minister of Agriculture insists that there is enough maize in the country, though others, for example the Consumer Association of Malawi (Cama) claim that it is being hoarded by unscrupulous traders hoping to profit from inflated prices. With inflation at almost 25% for many months now and the kwacha depreciating against other currencies, prices are rocketing and the costs of buying maize from other countries also soaring.
The impact of hunger on social cohesion is considerable. People smugglers are transporting desperate Malawians to South Africa without official papers, many of them ending up in detention before being repatriated. Others are held by the smugglers in order to blackmail their families into paying for their release. People have been attacking trains carrying wheat in central Malawi. Because of the steep price rises, subsistence farmers who do not usually pay cash for food, are making money in whatever ways they can. The Senior Chief in the Blantyre area has said that people have been chopping down precious trees to make charcoal for sale. Indeed, for the first time, I have seen charcoal for sale in the centre of Lilongwe itself.
A number of commentators, including the Bishop and various MPs, have called on changes in agricultural practices in order to address the problems brought by climate change. Among such recommendations is the rehabilitation of irrigation schemes. The Minister of Finance claims that this could result in two harvests per year. However, water levels in Lake Malawi have fallen because of the drought, affecting not just agriculture but also causing power shortages in a country reliant on hydroelectricity.
Another proposal addresses the cultural preference for maize as a staple annual crop, eaten as nsima (boiled maize flour). Experts have pointed to the need to diversify into more drought-resistant crops such as legumes, and change people’s eating habits. Most Malawians are said to consider that they have not ‘eaten’ if they have not eaten maize that day. Yet, the monoculture of maize has led to erosion of nutrients in the soil, significantly reducing its fertility. Growing legumes could not only improve the quality of the soil and add to the range and quantity of food available, it could also lead to valuable foreign trade with, for example, India.
The Catholic Development Commission in Malawi (Cadecom) and the Karonga Diocese itself are training people on irrigation farming, water conservation, winter cropping, conservation agriculture and food diversification. It has a major poverty reduction, social justice and human rights programme. It recently set up a coffee-growing project to provide employment for local people and improve their abilities to feed their families. Irish Aid is supporting a project on ‘climate smart agriculture’ on smallholder farms.
Some Malawian NGOs such as the Muslim Al-Barakah Charity Trust and the Bilal Trust have launched relief food distribution. And, of course, the big players are also involved. While the international donor community no longer provides budgetary support to Malawi, several countries have provided humanitarian aid, including the USA, China, Japan, the UK and Egypt.
The days are largely gone when relief organisations imported bags of grain, thus undermining local markets. The USA, for example, is providing a further $27 million (making $55 million in all) for the government to purchase maize, beans and soya locally or in Southern Africa. Alternatively, where appropriate, they provide for direct cash transfer to families so they can purchase food from local producers. The latter approach is increasingly being seen as more effective than relying on officials handing out food. Since 2012, the USA has provided about $100 million to improve food security in Malawi, $25 million through Barack Obama’s Feed the Future and Global Climate Change Initiatives and the US Agency for International Development (USAiD). The USA is also supporting crop diversification programmes.
As if matters weren’t difficult enough, Malawi acts as host to 15,000 refugees, many from the Great Lakes region, until now principally from DR Congo and Burundi, but an increasing number – 9,000 over the last few months – from Mozambique. Here government forces (Frelimo) have been burning villages and killing civilians whom they claim have been hiding opposition fighters (Renamo). Unfortunately, Mozambique has objected to Malawi setting up an official refugee camp at Kapise, which would enable UNHCR support to be provided, as that would have meant acknowledging the violence and hence damaging its international reputation.
As a result, Malawi, which can barely feed its own population, is struggling to feed the refugees and supply their health needs. Precious trees are being cut down for firewood and housing. The cramped grass-thatched houses, lack of sanitation and arrival of the rains are now threatening to give rise to water-borne diseases. The number of cholera cases has already been increasing in various parts of the country. The district council is sinking wells to ensure clean water. Aid organisations have also stepped in, Medecins sans Frontieres setting up a clinic, UNICEF immunizing under-fives and Oxfam fumigating houses against bedbugs and mosquitos. The USA has also donated $900,000 for emergency food needs.
Malawi, therefore as you can see, has some pressures not of its own making. The country has, however, always prided itself on being hospitable. I have seen no calls for refugees to be turned away.
Let us just hope that now the rains are here, the harvest will be sufficient to make good the food shortage. And, in the longer term, let us also hope that the agricultural initiatives on climate change and resilience supported by a number of local and international organisations will begin to have some impact.