In September 2000, 147 heads of State and government, and 189 nations in total, convened for the Millennium Summit at United Nations Headquarters in New York City. They adopted the Millennium Declaration, committing themselves to halving the number of people living in poverty by 2015. Currently, there are more than 800 million people worldwide who do not have adequate access to food. In Malawi, exact figures are not known, however with the widespread poverty and unemployment, most urban poor people are struggling to adequately access food. This, despite a long-standing acknowledgement by the countries of the world, that everyone has a “right to have access to safe and nutritious food.”
For Centre for Social Concern (CfSC), the right to food is a crucial element in the fight against poverty and social injustice. Food and nutrition security are foundations for development. Nutritional status of children is used as one of the key indicators for poverty reduction in the framework of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This reflects the insight that policies, programmes and processes to improve nutrition outcomes have a role to play in poverty reduction and national development. Without access to food, there can be no development.
There are a number of key elements required in enabling people to have access to food. Actualising the right to food means that people should have access, to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that is culturally appropriate, at prices that they can afford. Hence people that are unable to satisfy their basic needs – for example, food, health, water, shelter, primary education and community participation are considered to live in (absolute) poverty.
As the CfSC Social Conditions Research Programme Officer, Mr. Alex Nkosi observes, “the current trend in Malawi of sustained rapid food price inflation poses an enormous challenge in enabling poor people to access food because prices for staple foods are rising well beyond the reach of most Malawians, more especially the poor. What is surprising is the fact that this increase in maize prices is happening at a time when Malawi has had bumper yields for a couple successive years. What has happened to the abundant harvest?”
The CfSC Cost of Living Survey for December in the Cities of Mzuzu, Lilongwe, Zomba and Blantyre has shown unrelenting rapid price increase for food commodities. In December, maize has registered an average 7% increase in all the cities. While Mzuzu was the hardest hit in the month of November, this month the price of maize is hitting hard the Lilongwe city residents. In the capital city the staple food has gone up by 11% (K2, 236 in November to K2, 514 in December per 50kg bag) while Mzuzu has seen the maize price increase by 10.2%. In Blantyre the price of maize has stabilised remaining at K2, 500 per 50kgs in the months of November and December while in Zomba it has gone up by 7% - from K2, 083 in November to K2, 242 in December. In November, there were reports that Kenyan and Somali bulk-buyers had swarmed the markets of Mzuzu City and were offering better rates than the locals, consequently inducing the price of maize to surge upwards. In Lilongwe maize is becoming a rare commodity in the face of the ever-increasing demand and the prices are responding accordingly. It is important to note that this survey was conducted days before Government decide to increase its price through ADMARC by 50% from K2000 to K3000 per 50 kg bag. With this development it means that all the highlighted prices in this statement will automatically surge upwards.
Similar trends have been observed with other items in the food basket. Beans, for instance, has gone up by 5.5% in Lilongwe from K259 per kilogram in November to K279 in December. In Zomba beans have notched a 3% increase while in Blantyre and Mzuzu the prices have remained the same from November. The average price of Tomato per Kilogram in Zomba is K175 from K88 in November – representing a 49% increment. In Lilongwe Tomato has gone up by 24% while in Mzuzu and Blantyre the commodity has upsurged by 7.7% and 1.8% respectively. For the past couple of months, all items in the food baskets have shown a steady rise in prices. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET, December 21, 2011), a body that monitors trends in staple food prices in countries vulnerable to food insecurity has also observed that maize prices in Malawi have been increasing slightly faster than in the rest of the SADC region. FEWS NET attributes the price rise to cross-border flows of grain towards the deficit markets of Zimbabwe, southern Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kenya.
In summary, the cost of living continues to go up in all the cities of Malawi. The average December food basket (the cost of essential food items) for Lilongwe, Mzuzu, Zomba and Blantyre went up by 5.7%. Zomba witnessed the highest increase (10%) from K30, 800 in November to K34, 602 in December. In Lilongwe the food basket went up by 6.5% while in Blantyre and Mzuzu the basket rose by 1.3% and 5.2% respectively. Regarding the entire Basic Needs Basket (comprising of food and non-food items) the survey has disclosed that the cost of living for the four cities has gone up by 3.3% on average. With a 5.5%, Zomba has registered the highest increase in the cost of living – in November a family of six people needed K56, 727 to live a minimum dignified life, now the bill is at K60, 080. In the Capital City, the cost of living went up by 3.3%, Mzuzu 3.2% and in Blantyre by 1.2%. Having said this, Lilongwe remains the most expensive city with the current Basic Needs Basket standing at K69, 303.
Mr. Alex Nkosi further notes that “with this rapid food price inflation and the current economic slowdown, there are two main channels through which households are affected: (a) the ensuing food price inflation has made it increasingly difficult for low-income households to afford their food baskets – their take-home pay is not even enough to cater for the essential food items. Further, the fluctuating agro-food markets have exposed people who were perceived as food-secure at one moment to enormous risks, and it has therefore raised their vulnerability to unanticipated livelihood shocks. (b) The knock-on effects of the economic slowdown have occasioned an increase in job losses (especially in the private sector) which has practically obliterated the income of the households where their breadwinners are victim of jobs losses”.
This increase in the cost of living is taking place at a time when the income for low and middle earners is inadequate and has stagnated for a while. For instance, the Salary Survey carried out by CfSC (August, 2011) in the cities of Blantyre, Zomba, Lilongwe and Mzuzu for low-income and middle-income earners revealed that Police officers (Grade PM 1 to Grade PL6) receive a gross monthly salary in the range of K19, 887.00 to K28, 858.00. At the end of the month, domestic workers (Nannies, Housemaid, Garden boys etc...) rake-in a measly range of K2, 500 - K12, 000 per month. Nurses & health personnel (Grade O to I) are in the range of K12, 833 to K64, 860. General workers (cleaners, office assistants, shop assistants) receive a gross salary in the range of K9, 000 - K39, 741 while Journalists hover between K30, 000 and K49, 364 per month. Teachers in Primary and Secondary (PT4 to Grade I) get a monthly gross salary of K23,000 to K46,000 in the private sector while those in government schools are in the range of K25,870 to K47,000.
“With these unmatched increases in food prices”, points out Mr. Alex Nkosi, “it means that low and middle income earners are practically required to spend all of their income on the food basket if they are to live a minimum dignified life. In fact, for most low-income earners, their income falls far short from meeting their monthly basic needs. Thus even the slightest increase in food prices can have devastating consequences on low-income earners’ ability to access food”.
As the scarcity of foreign currency supply continues to contribute to an unstable economy, traders are struggling to purchase and import essential commodities such as fuel and fertilizer. Problems in importing fertilizer into the country and difficulties faced in distributing the imported fertilizer to rural areas will likely negatively affect harvests in April-August 2012. Looking at the ascending trend that the price of maize has taken for the past 12 months (January 2011 to December 2011) CfSC is concerned if the staple will be within the reach of poor households in the coming months. Our concern is heightened especially that Government has decided to increase the price of maize by 50%. Of particular worry is the fact that Malawians are approaching the lean months of January, February and March when, judging from experience, maize prices are always at their peak. This period is especially tough for many households because families usually grapple with extra responsibilities in the range of paying for school fees to meeting the costs of farm inputs. While CfSC appreciates the touted benefits that market liberalization brings, our concern focuses on the fact that maize is the life-line commodity in Malawi and as such, it needs to be safeguarded. CfSC applauds the Government for approving a humanitarian food assistance intervention plan for southern Malawi covering all people identified by the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC). In the same spirit CfSC urges government to put up measures that will enable the poor to have access to the staple including those in very low paying jobs by among other things reconsidering the recent maize price hike.
We at CfSC have a preferential option for the poor and express our deep concern regarding the debilitating impact that the cost of living is having on poor people. Our primary purpose of this special commitment to the poor is to enable them to become active participants in the life of society. It is to enable all persons to share in and contribute to the common good. The economic insight of the principles of the Universal Destination of Goods is that each person needs to benefit from how social output is divided. It does not claim that each person has the right to an equal share, but that each has a right to sufficiency. It does assert that wealth and poverty are socially created categories, and those who have a surplus above their needs have an obligation to help those who have less than what they need. ‘Option for the poor,’ therefore, is not an adversarial slogan that pits one group or class against another. Rather it states that the deprivation and powerlessness of the poor wounds the whole community. The extent of their suffering is a measure of how far we are from being a true community of persons.