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UN Food Expert Asks Malawi to Reconsider Farm Subsidies

  • Lameck Masina

Traders selling maize at a market in Malawi's northern district of Karonga. Subsidized fertilizer has helped boost production in recent years. (VOA / T. Kumwenda)

Traders selling maize at a market in Malawi's northern district of Karonga. Subsidized fertilizer has helped boost production in recent years. (VOA / T. Kumwenda)

In Malawi, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food has asked the government to reassess its agriculture priorities and to increase support for many underfunded programs.

The call from Olivier De Schutter came at the end of his recent eleven day trip to the country to assess food availability.

He said Malawi’s Farm Input Subsidy Program, or FISP, is not working as planned.
The government effort, introduced eight years ago, enables the poor farmers to buy farm inputs including fertilizers at reduced prices. The country has been registering surplus maize ever since.

But De Shutter said the problem is that it’s draining a lot of funds that could be used to develop other agricultural programs.

“FISP has been quite vital since it was introduced in 2005-2006," he said, "but like other programs it has at the same time many defects. And I propose number of ways in which FISP has to be improved. Other programs could be better financed if FISP is gradually reduced.”

Malawi’s support for fertilizer and other farm inputs takes up more over half of Malawi's agricultural budget, which De Schutter said crowds out other priorities such as agriculture extension services.

“There are other ways to build the fertility of the soils.," he said. "There is need to move from input intensive to nourish intensive agriculture development. We need to compliment the Green Revolution introduced with FISP to Brown Revolution for the fertility of the soil and Blue Revolution for better water harvesting and irrigation techniques”.

Billy Mayaya, the chairperson of National Right to Food Network in Malawi, agrees with De Schutter on the need to find an exit strategy to FISP.

“There are a lot of concerns on issues of food in the country particularly the implementation of FISP," he said. "While it is a good program at the same time, there are concerns over the expense of the program, and I think there is the need for the government to start considering an exit strategy.”

Despite the surpluses produce by the program, Malawi has still had to import maize. Some government officials blame leaking silos that allowed stored food to rot. The Consumers Association of Malawi has asked the government to form a commission of inquiry to look into the matter.

Supporters of FISP say those shortages are another reason for keeping the program.
Sara Tione, Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson, said the benefits of the program are greater than its shortcomings.

“We know that it is draining resources," she said. "But we cannot talk of exit strategies until Malawians are self-sufficient and food secure. If today we leave out people accessing the fertilizer are we going to ensure food self-sufficiency that way?”

That view was also voiced by Malawi President Joyce Banda at a recent political rally. She said the subsidy on farm inputs will not be ended until the country can feed itself. At this point, she said, there’s still too many farmers who can not afford to buy fertilizers.