Malawi was one of the countries hardest hit by the 2002 drought in southern Africa. It left about five million of the country’s 12 million people in dire need of food aid. But this year, Malawi is boasting a large surplus of its staple food crop, maize, and overnight has become an donor of food aid to its neighbors. Voice of America English to Africa Service reporter Lameck Masina in Blantyre says maize provides for over half of Malawi’s food needs and, as maize meal, is a significant part of the diet in most southern African countries. Government statistics show that this year Malawi has harvested 3.4 million metric tones of maize – 22 percent more than last year. That means a little more than a million tons is available for sale or donation.
Mac Leans Victor Makwinja is a crop specialist in the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security. He says good weather is not the only reason for the high yield; a new technique for planting maize called the one-one method has contributed. In this method, only one seed is planted in each hole rather than three, which is the traditional practice. This eliminates competition for nutrients and makes it more likely the single seed will grow. Makwinja says, “Farmers have realized the importance of adopting modern farming techniques. For example, we are advocating the one-one-planting of maize, which most farmers have discovered that it is very good method of planting maize. [The Ministry of Agriculture has] also gone flat out to do a lot of campaigns on manure making and also soil and water conservation. And we are encouraging our farmers to use improved seed varieties. These varieties tend to yield much, much more than local varieties.”
The bumper maize harvest is also attributed to government fertilizer subsidies introduced in 2005. In the program, Village Development Committees provided poor farmers with coupons to buy the fertilizers at a reduced price.
The government also helped members of farmers’ clubs increase irrigation by giving them free treadle pumps, which are operated by foot. The pumps have allowed maize to be grown year-round in most parts of the country.
So far, Malawi has sold 400,000 metric tons to Zimbabwe, which is experiencing severe hunger problems.
Malawi has also pledged to donate 5,000 metric tons to both Swaziland and Lesotho. The two countries are in dire need of food aid after natural and man-made disasters left them without enough food.
In Swaziland, the problem is mainly the result of last year’s drought. In Lesotho it’s due to wildfires that destroyed crops.
But Malawi’s pledge to help its neighbors is not without its critics. Rafik Hajat is the executive director of the independent Institute for Policy Interaction, a research-driven advocacy group specializing in democratic consolidation and social justice. Hajat says Malawi is not in a position to donate maize to other countries. He says selling and donating the maize, rather than storing it, would put the country at risk of hunger, as was the case in 2002, when the government sold all surplus maize to Kenya.
But President Bingu wa Mutharika says the donations will encourage farmers to grow more maize, whereas storing it may discourage farmers from growing it in the future. He said he deems it humane and proper to assist those in need. Hajat, however, says he doubts that the government’s claim of a surplus is true and does not think Malawi is in a position to donate maize to other countries. He questions the government’s statistics.
“One thing about statistics – they can be used to show whatever you want them to show. I think the annual requirement for Malawi is 2.5 million (metric) tons. We have already sold about 400,000 (metric) tons to Zimbabwe. That means that we no longer have that surplus. If you do your math you may probably find that we have half a million tons left. After spoilage and so on, I wonder how much really would remain in our silos.”
Hajat said the government should have considered a number of factors before making the pledge. “Rainfall patterns are erratic and I think our irrigation-fed agriculture has not developed to an extent where we can certainly project bumper harvests year on year on year. I would say that it is imperative for the government to ensure that we have adequate stocks, buffer stocks, in case we are not blessed with plentiful rains in the future.”
But the Minister of Agriculture says it’s possible that Malawi will have another bumper harvest this year. “Already there are plans [for a] 2007/2008 (fertilizer) subsidy program again this season. Assuming all the factors are good, for example good weather, and we are going to low levels of pest and diseases, there are chances that we are going to have another bumper harvest this season.”
President Mutharika denies the maize donation could lead to hunger in Malawi. He says his government has put in place mechanisms to ensure Malawians will continue to enjoy high yields in the years to come.