Once labelled the bread basket of south-eastern Africa, Malawi was the continent's agricultural success story. But today, people are queueing for food in a country that's carpeted with cornfields. To mark Christian Aid Week Mary Griffin visits south east Africa to find out why.
To the Western world Malawi is known for being Madonna’s adoption destination of choice.
But to the rest of Africa, Malawi is famed for being at the forefront of the continent’s so-called “green revolution”, increasing agriculture production to the point where it can become a commercial, rather than a subsistence, sector.
It gained the trailblazing status after the previous president, Bingu wa Mutharika, introduced an Agricultural Input Subsidy Program in 2005, providing seeds and fertiliser for smallholder farmers to strengthen food self-sufficiency following some of the worst droughts the country had ever seen.
The program was soon hailed a success, producing (with the help of the weather) the largest maize harvest the country had ever seen, turning Malawi from an importer to an exporter of maize.
After Bingu died in April 2012, Joyce Banda took over as president of a country suffering the legacy of a government that had spiralled into corruption and lost international support, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stopping aid, followed by other individual donors, causing an 80 per cent dive in Malawi’s development budget.
Within a month of taking office, Banda devalued Malawi’s currency, the Kwacha, by a third against the dollar as well as removing subsidies on fuel and other commodities – conditions set by the IMF to regain the aid lost under her predecessor – and as a result, the IMF awarded Malawi a three-year loan of 157 million dollars.
Since the devaluation, however, inflation has risen to more than 30 per cent and the Kwacha has been rated the worst performing currency in Africa.
A recent Integrated Household survey found that 52.2 per cent of the country's population is now in poverty, surviving on less than a dollar a day. Meanwhile, the number in the most extreme poverty, surviving on less than 10 cents a day, has increased from 22 to 25 per cent.
Two dry growing seasons have also resulted in people queueing in the streets of the capital, Lilongwe, for maize rations as the country once again goes short of its staple food.
In a country where 90 per cent of the population depends on growing their own food to survive – and the entire nation has an over-reliance on a single crop, maize, not only posing nutritional problems (particularly problematic when 10 per cent of the adult population is HIV positive and more than half of all children in Malawi suffer from stunted growth) but also making the country more vulnerable to crop shortages – the prospect of drought and irregular rain is potentially catastrophic.
And with 12 of Malawi’s hottest years on record falling in the last 20, the situation looks particularly perilous.
Malnutrition aside, the UN’s food chief José Graziano da Silva recently commended Banda on committing “at the highest level to ending hunger and extreme poverty” and for being on track to meeting the Millennium Development Goal of halving the 1990 proportion of people suffering from hunger by 2015.
But Dennis Chiunjiza, director of a Christian Aid supported HIV/AIDS programme in Malawi, disagrees.
“Foreign country governments think Joyce Banda is the best thing that ever happened,” he says, “but if you ask Malawians, they don’t agree.
“She accepted the devaluing of the local currency and because of that devaluation, people have suffered.
“When she came in, fuel costs were a third what they are now.
“I think our governments have not been serious enough to invest in areas that will really turn the situation around. The poor remain poor sometimes because the rich deliberately want to keep them poor.”
He adds: “Malawi’s future is not necessarily about maize, it’s about creating an economic regime that is export-based out of things like ground nuts, sugar, cotton and soya beans.
“It’s exciting to know that there are also possibilities of oil in Lake Malawi. But at the same time it’s scary due to the potential conflict it may ignite between ourselves and Tanzania.”
Tax Justice Network Africa is also uncertain about the potential of oil being found under Lake Malawi, concerned that international mining companies are already cheating the country – one of the 20 poorest in the world according to the UN’s human development index – out of millions in tax.
Between 2001 and 2010, Malawi lost £3 billion through tax avoidance by corporations and individuals.
And at February’s international mining conference in Cape Town, Alvin Mosioma of Tax Justice Network Africa asked: “How is it possible that you have 3,000 employees in Malawi and three in the Cayman Islands and you can attribute 70 per cent of your profit to the operation in the Cayman Islands?”
Vitu Chinoko, Christian Aid’s programme officer in Malawi, says Malawi has been enslaved by its favourite food, maize, and fears that dependence will drive Banda’s re-election campaign next year.
Aware that the country relies on this water-thirsty crop, the Malawi government continues to divert 19 per cent of its budget to agriculture, running a country-wide voucher scheme, supplying citizens with seeds and a free 50kg bag of fertiliser worth about £25.
But the smallest family farm (around the size of a football pitch) needs six bags of fertiliser, costing nearly £150 – more than half the average Malawian’s yearly earnings.
“This is money which an ordinary person will not find,” says Vitu.
“We are asking the government for a strategic process of input to support farmers for two years before phasing that support out in order to grow the farmers’ independence.
“But the government doesn’t want that because they feel they would lose votes. They are buying votes with their fertiliser.”
* With funding from the UK government, Christian Aid is supporting a range of grassroots organisations in Malawi to lift people out of poverty and improve their access to food.
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