News / Africa

    In Southern Africa, an Illusion Built on Aid Heralds Hope and Hunger

    Rain clouds loom as Malawian subsistence farmer Louise Abele carries maize she has bought to feed her family near the capital Lilongwe, Malawi, Jan. 31, 2016.
    Rain clouds loom as Malawian subsistence farmer Louise Abele carries maize she has bought to feed her family near the capital Lilongwe, Malawi, Jan. 31, 2016.
    Reuters

    As she walks along a dirt road in central Malawi, Louise Abale carries her precious maize wrapped in a brightly colored cloth and balanced on her head.

    Because of drought in Malawi and across southern Africa the grain has doubled in price in the space of a year, and now costs around 200 kwacha ($0.28) a kilo.

    Like many, Abale is struggling to pay for maize, a staple of the diet, and says her own - stunted - crop will not be ready for harvest for two months. "It's too expensive, I have almost no money," she said.

    In all 2.8 million people in Malawi, or 17 percent of the population, now face hunger, according to the United Nations World Food Program (WFP).

    Drought and floods have hit the maize crop, exposing the fragility of gains which had seen Malawi's rates of malnutrition slashed in the past two decades.

    That progress was partly rooted in a fertilizer grant for small-scale farmers. But now the government, starved of donor funds following a graft scandal over two years ago, can ill afford such payments and says it must scale down the program.

    Malawians queue for food aid distributed by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in Mzumazi village near the capital Lilongwe, Feb. 3, 2016.
    Malawians queue for food aid distributed by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in Mzumazi village near the capital Lilongwe, Feb. 3, 2016.

    Ironically, policies aimed at ensuring basic food security are partly to blame for a cycle of rural poverty and aid dependency in this land-locked African nation, leaving the population vulnerable to climate shocks, economists say.

    "There is no doubt that the fertilizer subsidy was only feasible due to donor support," said Ed Hobey, an analyst at Africa Risk Consulting. "At best, it was unsustainable without continued donor support, at worst, it was an illusion built on aid."

    Launched in 2005, the Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP) provides qualifying farmers - those with limited income but a plot of productive land - with two coupons which can be redeemed for two 50-kg bags of fertilizer. The recipients make a modest contribution, with the government footing most of the bill.

    Because the government is subsidizing the production of maize - the main source of calories for many poor households - it also bans the export of the grain.

    The program is credited by the government and some aid agencies with lifting maize production and cutting hunger.

    The data appear to back that up.

    The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says the percentage of Malawi's malnourished population fell to 21.8 percent in 2012-14 from 45 percent two decades earlier.

    But FISP's role here is difficult to untangle as most of  those gains were made before 2005. Still, there is evidence of benefits, including indirect ones.

    Stunting among Malawi children - a key nutrition measure - fell to 42.4 percent in 2014 from 49 percent in 2002.

    Unintended Consequences

    But the program has also had unintended consequences.

    The focus on food security, including the ban on maize exports, has discouraged investment in more productive commercial farming methods.

    "Our concern with the export ban is that it limits the scope to expand production among more medium and large-scale farms if they are unable to market the surplus," said Richard Record, World Bank Senior Country Economist, World Bank in Malawi.

    A Malawian man carries food aid distributed by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) through maize fields in Mzumazi village near the capital Lilongwe, Feb. 3, 2016.
    A Malawian man carries food aid distributed by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) through maize fields in Mzumazi village near the capital Lilongwe, Feb. 3, 2016.

    In the long run such a ban stunts food production, especially in an age of increasingly high-tech farming, economists say.

    FISP also diverted state funds from other areas.

    In all, FISP has accounted for as much as 9 percent of government expenditure and over half the agricultural budget, leaving scant funds to invest in rural transport links and other projects that would benefit the countryside.

    "The FISP was not matched by increased investment in rural infrastructure especially roads and irrigation," said Hobey of Africa Risk Consulting.

    This retards development of other sectors in the farm value chain, such as canning, which can kick-start industrialization, economists and analysts say.

    Initially FISP met its objective: providing calories to the rural poor. Between 2007 and 2014 Malawi produced bumper maize crops, with surpluses recorded since 2007 - until last year.

    A study in the "The American Journal of Agricultural Economics" found a 15 percent boost in maize production under FISP coincided with a 15 percent decrease in the amount of land devoted to the grain.

    This suggests small-scale farmers diversified to cash crops such as tobacco and cotton.

    Donor Drought Drains FISP Coffers

    Today FISP is no longer viable, government officials and analysts say.

    Donor funds for the budget have dried up in the wake of a scandal over two years ago dubbed "cashgate," in which state officials siphoned millions of dollars.

    "We are going to have to be scaling down expenditure on FISP, we are reacting to diminishing resources of funds for the budget," Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe told Reuters.

    Belt tightening is underway, though the number of FISP recipients has remained unchanged at 1.5 million.

    Instead of paying 500 Malawian kwacha ($0.70) toward the two 50 kg bags of fertilizer subsidized, Gondwe said farmers would now pay 3,500 kwacha. The cost of a bag is around 20,000 kwacha.

    Several subsistence farmers interviewed by Reuters in their fields said they could not afford the 3,500 kwacha, let alone the full cost.

    A Malawian trader counts money as he sells maize near the capital Lilongwe, Malawi, Feb. 1, 2016.
    A Malawian trader counts money as he sells maize near the capital Lilongwe, Malawi, Feb. 1, 2016.

    The price for fertilizer has surged as it is imported and the kwacha has been sliding against the dollar, losing 63 percent in the past 12 months.

    Gondwe said the program this financial year would cost 54 billion kwacha instead of an original estimate of 40 billion, plus an additional 8 billion rand for seeds.

    Individual Successes

    To be sure, FISP has helped individual farmers, such as Salome Banda. Five years ago, Banda made the transition from subsistence farming to producing a surplus of maize for market because she received the grant once.

    "I have not had it since 2010 but I can buy my own fertilizer now," she told Reuters as she stood proudly by 50 kg bags of her maize stacked in a warehouse north of Lilongwe. She said one FISP grant tripled her production that season.

    For others, the benefits have not translated into such gains and even Banda, while she produces surpluses, has hardly made the leap to more productive, technical farming.

    "When I got FISP, I fed all my children," said Matezenji Watsoni, a 35-year-old mother of seven, as she waited outside a World Food Program relief station in a rural Lilongwe suburb for a 50 kg bag of maize.

    "But this is the third year I have not had it, and it has brought hunger to my house," she said.

    This year a perfect storm is brewing after a decade of maize surpluses turned into a deficit of 225,000 tons in 2015, in a country that consumes 3 million tons annually. The harvest this season looks set to be even worse.

    Rural Until the Cows Come Home

    Another unintended outcome of the FISP is that by subsidizing peasant farming, people have an incentive to remain on the land, adding to rural population pressures.

    Malawian subsistence farmers Simon Sikazwe (L) and Cecelia Kazibuta (R) stand beside communal maize fields in Dowa near the capital Lilongwe, Feb. 3, 2016.
    Malawian subsistence farmers Simon Sikazwe (L) and Cecelia Kazibuta (R) stand beside communal maize fields in Dowa near the capital Lilongwe, Feb. 3, 2016.

    Late rains have clothed central regions in simmering shades of green but this idyllic image belies the late start to the summer planting season and the grinding poverty of rain-fed, hand-tilled agriculture.

    Malawi, which has done little to industrialize, is also barely urban. In 1990, 88 percent of the population was rural, a number that was 84 percent in 2014, according to World Bank data. Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole is 63 percent rural.

    Asked about industrialization, Finance Minister Gondwe, a jovial septuagenarian, looked almost bemused.

    "It will take time to industrialize. But don't forget this country cannot even make a needle. So to base your policy on that probably is asking too much," he said.

    ($1 = 717.0800 kwacha)

    You May Like

    Former US Envoys Urge Obama to Delay Troop Cuts in Afghanistan

    Keeping troop levels up during conflict with both Taliban and Islamic State is necessary to support Kabul government, they say

    First Lady to Visit Africa to Promote Girls' Education

    Michele Obama will be joined by daughters and actresses Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto

    Video NYSE Analyst: Brexit Will Continue to Place Pressure on Markets

    Despite orderly pricing and execution strategy at the New York Stock Exchange, analyst explains added pressure on world financial markets is likely

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Unchartered Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Unchartered Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora