In Malawi, weather forecasters and agricultural officials say the late onset of rains in the south will give farmers more time to get their seeds planted. Malawi is trying to recover from two consecutive years of poor harvests after drought and flooding wiped out its primary food crop – maize.
Malawi’s wet season normally starts in the south in early November and works its way north. Often, there’s a false start – and rains stop for an intermittent dry spell that can cause germinating crops to wilt – or seeds to rot underground. This year, the rains are expected to start a bit later than usual – and without an initial dry spell.
Malawi’s deputy director for Meteorological Services, Gray Munthali, says in the southern part of the country, farmers usually experience what is called a “chizimalupsya” -- a shower or two in late October before the real rains set in. But he says there were not as many showers in October as normal. He says the government calls it a blessing in disguise because people can receive their inputs in time and prepare for the real rains in November.
This year, southern Africa – including Malawi – is likely to be affected by a moderate El Nino weather phenomenon. The condition – which is linked to cooling temperatures of the Pacific Ocean air currents - could bring shorter growing periods and an uneven distribution of moisture.
According to the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning System, or FEWSNET, southern Malawi is likely to experience normal to above normal rainfall from now until December – while rainfall in the rest of the country may be below normal. In the second half of the growing season, the situation is expected reverse – with the south experiencing less than normal rainfall, while the north and central parts of the country experience normal levels of precipitation.
Meanwhile, Malawi’s Meteorological Department warns that rains could cause flooding and water logging in some areas due to a heavy accumulation of silt in waterways. Mid-season dry spells are also expected.
Sam Chimwaza is FEWSNETS’s country representative for Malawi. He says given this year’s weather predictions -- farmers should prepare their land early enough so they plant with the first rains. Extension services should also be sure that farmers have access to early maturing varieties of maize and other seed in the case of reduced rain.
Already, the government is trying to help farmers recover from two years of poor harvests brought on by drought and flooding – by providing so-called starter packs that include two kilograms of hybrid seed, a kilogram of legume seed – beans, ground nuts, or pidgin peas - and  kilograms of fertilizer. The starter packs include enough to beging planting on 0.1 hectares of land for small holder farms.
Mr. Chimwaza says it’s critical to deliver these inputs by the onset of the rains.
Malawi government officials say the starter packs have been delivered to over three million families. They say the aim is to help farmers produce about two-point-three million metric tons of maize – last achieved three years ago.
Food production is also expected to be supplemented by a so-called winter crop of maize – which has a very short growing season - and is being harvested now. The harvest was helped by the so-called Targeted Inputs Program, or TIP – an effort by donors and government to distribute free fertilizers and seeds.
Malawi’s minister of agriculture and irrigation, Aleke Banda, says the winter crop of maize is expected to produce over 100 thousand metric tones. Next year, they hope to produce two to three times that amount. And, he says, the government is making contingency plans for bad weather next year. He says it’s intensifying its campaign to expand irrigation – encouraging farmers to dig canals and divert rivers into their fields. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is spending about 80 million dollars to provide farmers with nearly 200 thousand treadle pumps. The pumps are foot operated – and one of the least expensive ways to get water from rivers and lakes into farmers’ fields.
Efforts are also underway to convince consumers to rely less on maize – which requires much fertilizer and moisture – in favor of other more drought resistant crops like cassava and other tubers. Most of Malawi’s rice, which is produced along Lake Malawi, is said to be sold to neighboring countries. Tubers like cassava are grown largely in the north – but are not effectively marketed throughout the rest of the country.