As Malawi continues to wallow in economic hardships, low and middle income earners persistently struggle to afford even the most basic of monthly commodities. The Centre for Social Concern (CfSC) Cost of Living report for 2011 indicates that the cost of living went up by 21% between January and October 2011 (see Figure 1), whereas the earning power increased at an average of 7% for civil servants and almost at the same rate for other sectors. This unmatched increase in the cost of living continues relentlessly and is negatively impacting on household food security.
As Figure 1 portrays, towards the end of 2011 the cost of the Basic Needs Basket continued to increase dramatically and the survey for January 2012 shows that this upsurge will persist if nothing tangible is done. From December 2011 to January 2012 the cost of living went up by an average of 9.7%: Blantyre registered a 12% increase, Lilongwe 11%, while Zomba and Mzuzu had an increase of 8%. The total basic needs basket comprising of food and non-food essential items for Lilongwe, Zomba, Blantyre and Mzuzu for a family of 6 people is now at K77, 760; K65, 449; K74, 059 and K66, 454 respectively. Regarding commodities in the basket, almost every item went up drastically. For instance, Maize price hiked by 30% in Zomba, beans went up by 17% in Lilongwe and tomatoes had gone up by 36% in Zomba city. In Mzuzu, prices for food items seem to have stabilised in January.
Households most affected by this increase in food prices are net buyers who typically spend a large share of their income on food. The most vulnerable net buyers are female-headed households. Studies have shown that female-headed households are disproportionately among the poorest of the poor in rural and urban areas (Coon, 2008) and that sudden increases in food prices have negative repercussions for female-headed households in particular, partly because they tend to spend proportionally more on food than male-headed households and therefore are harder hit by higher food prices (FAO, 2008).
As Alex Nkosi, the Social Conditions Research Programme Officer observes, “For women headed households living below the poverty line, providing even one meal a day for children is often a struggle, compounded by women’s lack of access to productive assets and credit, as well as cultural norms that accord women the main responsibility for meeting household consumption needs. For such households higher prices have an immediate impact on the quantity and quality of food consumed”.
In the light of the ever increasing cost of living, CfSC carried out a study to uncover the survival and adaptive strategies that poor people employ in order survive in the face of inadequate resources. The study revealed that poor households employ strategies ranging from dietary change to rationing. In terms of dietary change, households start to rely on less preferred and less expensive food. Some families send their children to eat with their well-off neighbours or send their household members to beg either within their community or in town centres. Others simply borrow food or rely on help from their well of relatives or gather wild food to survive. As regards rationing, families limit the portion size at meal times or resort to feeding working members of the household at the expense of non-working members.
Alex Nkosi further notes that, “it is women who bear the brunt of high food price rises, not only because they are primarily responsible for the management of food in the household but also because they are often the ones who buffer the impact of the crisis at the household level through decreased consumption”.
These strategies have significant consequences, especially for the most vulnerable groups (sick, elderly, children, pregnant women). The fact that women and children face particular lifecycle vulnerabilities, however, means that malnutrition can have particularly devastating health effects. Women and children are particularly vulnerable to the nutritional effects of high food prices, given that they are more likely to develop micronutrient deficiencies when driven to consume less diversified daily diets. Children, pregnant women and lactating mothers are most at risk of the effects of rising food prices (FAO, 2008; Oxfam and Save the Children, 2008; UNICEF, 2009). The high cost of living affects maternal health in particular, with malnutrition rendering pregnant women more susceptible to infection, miscarriage and premature labour. It also increases the likelihood that pregnant women who are HIV positive will transmit their virus to their children.
CfSC is concerned with the alarming rate at which the cost of living is increasing in Malawi and its consequent impact on poor households. While some of the food price increases are justifiable considering Malawi’s current macro-economic situation, CfSC strongly feels that most business people are taking advantage of the situation to rip-off poor people. CfSC strongly encourages government to study the situation and take appropriate action to remedy the situation. Additionally, vulnerable people like women-headed households need to be protected from shocks through effective safety nets. Safety nets may include assistance in the form of food, vouchers or cash transfers as well as employment programmes like food or cash for work.