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Reacting To Malawi's Maize Shortage - 2002-10-23


In Malawi, the shortage of maize is affecting the consumption of Malawi’s main staple food, nsima. Nsima is a paste made from mixing maize flour and boiling water, which is eaten in one form or another at all meals. Some Malawians blame the government for the shortages. They say it failed to recognize the early signs of the crisis.

President Bakili Muluzi says his government is importing 250 thousand metric tons of maize to help the country through the current food emergency. But he says the country needs about 280 thousand metric tons total – some of which has already been purchased by private traders. The government has decided to subsidize maize so that it can be purchased for 17 kwacha per kilogram – or about 28 cents. That’s about half of the market price of maize. Yet, for many Malawians, food prices are still too high.

Nsima. Saying the word brings a smile to the face of many a Malawian. It’s a much beloved paste usually made from maize flour and boiling water—and is very similar to the maize-based food Italians call polenta, or food connoisseurs in the American south call “grits.” In Malawi, maize flour is mixed with water for breakfast into a type of porridge – and for lunch and dinner, it’s the thicker paste, nsima. Nsima eaters roll the white rubbery substance into a ball in the palm of their hand, and dip it in one of several sauces or vegetable relishes. More likely, they’ll use the nsima to grab piece of the local fish called “chambo.”

Maize is said to make up at least 70 percent of a Malawian’s diet. But the crop needs the help of imported fertilizer, That’s becoming expensive -- thanks to the devaluation of the local currency, the kwatcha. During food shortages, Malawians resort to cassava and millet flour for nsima. But, they'll tell you, the taste just isn’t the same. When there’s maize shortages -- as there have been for the past two years – and a lack of nsima, every household in the country is affected – and politicians are likely to stand up and take notice.

That’s partly because many Malawians will tell you that if you haven’t eaten the maize-based nsima, you simply haven’t eaten .

Collins Magalasi is the national coordinator of the Malawi Economic Justice Network. He joined me for dinner recently in Lilongwe.

He says, "The poor people in the village, suppose you give them rice or potatoes for dinner...they will accept the rice and eat it, but then they will hang on and say, “yes, but when is the (real) food coming?” Any little amount of nsima will make them realize they have taken real food. The middle class can take several months without nsima – they have rice or spaghetti – but the poor need nsima."

Question: "You’ve just had grilled chicken and fish and potatoes: as a Malawian, do you think you are missing real food?"

He replies, "If nsima comes, I’ll (dig) into it. I’ll be very happy."

Grace Soko is an office assistant with the World Bank in Lilongwe. She says her 80-year-old grandfather in northern Malawi tends small plots of maize and cassava for his household– so that other members of the family do not have to send him money. He does not earn enough from his plots to sell extra maize on the market. So far,though, he has enough for his own consumption.

But Grace says many Malawians are having a hard time keeping up with rising maize prices:

She says, "It is very difficult. Most Malawian families are big -- eight members in one family. It takes two 250-kilogram bags of maize to have two meals a day and a 50-kilogram bag is 900 kwacha (12 dollars). The exchange rate is 80 kwacha to the dollar. So, it is hard to get that much money. So people are struggling in villages. They have to sell cows, goats, or chickens. Sometime they get (daily) employment just for a small bag of flour instead of money. Here in urban areas we find food because the government has imported maize. But the prices have gone up. For the same food we found last year, we are spending more money to buy same type of food. I don’t get a lot of money.... I have two children, a husband and two workers (servants) -- so (on our combined salaries) we feed six people every day and 70 percent of our salaries go to food."

Taxi driver Wales Chidothi supports his school age sister and brother in Lilongwe. He says he earns the same amount of money as last year, but is paying double for the price for maize. He says even farmers who grow cash crops are suffering. He says for example that one problem for farmers is that they received low prices on the world market for their produce. So they grew fewer food crops s and more tobacco. That means less food available in case of emergencies.

He says, "When people grow things like tobacco they get their money (from sales), but the maize (they have to buy for their households) is more expensive than (what they’re earning from the sale of their) tobacco. So, it becomes too difficult for them to buy maize. Now when food shortages come, the prices are high and they can not manage with the little they earn from their tobacco. [Another problem is] they think they have a lot of cash (just after a tobacco sale) and think they can spend it (right away) on clothes and other things for their homes, and they forget they’ll need maize at the end of the year."

Many Malawians blame private traders for both the maize shortages and for the skyrocketing price of maize. Critics – including non-governmental organizations like Oxfam and ActionAid -- accuse private traders of paying low prices to farmers for maize—and hoarding it until food shortages drive prices up. Some ngo’s say private traders have sold their maize at prices as much as 600 percent higher than the price they initially paid. The government and traders deny the allegations.

Boyd Saize is a private trader in Lumbadze market — 32 kilometers north of Lilongwe. He sells his maize flour for 18 kwacha --per kilogram – just one kwacha more than the rate government companies are selling it for. He says he has plenty of customers – despite some who say even that rate – about 29 cents per kilogram – is too expensive.

Mr. Saize says he does not exploit consumers. He says he buys the maize for 15 kwatcha and makes a profit of about three kwatcha per kilogram. He says he does not hoard or profiteer, but admits he does put some maize aside. He denies that doing so contributes to hunger.

Interpreter: "He says he just keeps the maize to sell it when there is a shortage of foods – not that he wants to sell it at a higher price."

Question: "So, he does not buy it cheap, then save it and mark it up to sell during shortages?"

"No."

Food shortages are known to weaken immune systems – especially for those with HIV / AIDS. The shortages also make it more difficult to fight off other illnesses like malaria and seasonal maladies that come with the rains, like cholera.

Innocent Munde is the managing director of Angathe Coffin workshop in Mbayani Township, about four kilometers outside of Blantyre.

He says, "During the wet season we sell many coffins because we know there are many diseases – during the wet season you have fruits and rubbish coming up here, people may eat mangoes without washing them, children play in mud, and get cholera, etc."

Death is as expensive as life in Malawi. While a one-month supply of maize to stay alive costs about 900 kwatcha, or 12 dollars, Mr. Munde’s standard Formica casket costs about 1800 kwatcha, or 22 dollars. His cheapest – made out of plywood, timber planks and brown and black varnish—costs 48 hundred kwatcha or 60 dollars. Many are so poor that they buy on credit. For those who cannot afford to buy a casket at all, a village will sometimes make one for free from wood cut from a local tree.

All of the Malawians I spoke to recognized drought and flooding as factors for the food crisis, but also blamed the government for not acknowledging the famine soon enough, and for failing to enact price controls on maize to avert hunger. Some say the government should back away from the free market reforms embraced by the democratically elected government after the toppling of long-time authoritarian ruler Hastings Kamuzu Banda in 1994.

Billy Banda of the human rights group Malawi Watch put it this way:

"Malawians have been taken for a ride for a long time and they have been hoping the situation will improve, but when you realize good things are not forthcoming then [people’s attitudes change]. Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda did not believe Malawians would react as angrily as they did. We used to treat Dr. Banda like a god, but he was humbled one day and brought down to earth, he was humbled. So no one can assume he is above anyone else. It is only a question of time. When Malawians say enough is enough, they unite and fight with one spirit, he says."

In its defense, the government says it is working closely with donors to get food relief to all affected areas. It has also enacted a general subsidy of 17 kwatcha – or about 28 cents per kilogram – on all maize. It is also distributing free seeds and fertilizer to three million farmers in an effort to boost production. And, it says it’s working with donors like USAID to improve irrigation and encourage alternative crops that are more drought resistant than maize. The government notes that Malawi had two of its largest maize harvests ever in the late 1990’s – just before the region was hit by adverse weather.

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