Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Malawi: From food basket to basket case

Officially available but practically inaccessible, the debate on maize availability has become a game whose prize could turn out to be human life.

On one hand are government officials who— haunted by the daily struggle to fill the gulf between citizens’ high expectations for them to deliver and the nudging reality of maize scarcity and rising food prices— have been reduced to downplaying concerns raising against biting hunger.

Just on Monday, February 15, Agriculture, Irrigation and Food Security Minister, Allan Chiyembekeza, sought to dispel the notion that the country does not have enough maize stocks by announcing the procurement of an additional 41, 000 metric tonnes of maize to supplement the 9,221 metric tonnes under Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (Admarc)’s lock and key.

“We expect that the maize that is available now will take us through to the end of the lean period in April after which people will have harvested. We will make sure it reaches every selling point so that Malawians, especially those in remote areas, purchase the maize,” said Chiyembekeza.

On the other hand are opposition and civil society organisations who— sure that the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration has failed to deliver the goods in terms of food security and economic performance— have publicly called for President Peter Mutharika’s resignation.

During the two-day Public Affairs Committee (Pac) meeting held in Blantyre from February 17 to 18 last week, Malawi Congress Party (MCP) spokesperson, Jessie Kabwila, People’s Party spokesperson and Ken Msonda took turns to issue the government a 30-day ultimatum to release maize to all Admarc selling points, failing which Mutharika should step down.

“Government has no clue on the problems that the country is facing. We are dismayed by the inaction of the government to respond with urgency to the current food crisis, in spite of huge financial injections to the Farm Input Subsidy Programme,” said Msonda.

Political issue

The problem associated with food security issues is that they take a partisan politics angle. For example, political parties contesting in the May 2014 Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Government Elections had the component of food in their manifestos.

In its manifesto, the MCP indicated that “MCP considers the agricultural sector as key driver for national economic development; a key source of income; food security and a frontier for an export-led economy”.

The party then pledged that, once in power, it would develop organized agricultural systems that would uplift agriculture as a viable economic development sector.

The United Democratic Front, on its part, pledged to promote food security by putting in place effective risk management systems, commercialising agriculture, agro-processing and market development, and promoting sustainable agricultural land use and water management.

The governing DPP also had sweet-sounding words, saying it would “give highest priority to agriculture as the basis for maintaining sustainable livelihoods and economic growth of our economy.”

The PP— recognising that agriculture “remains the backbone of Malawi’s economy” and “contributes over 90 percent of the country’s export earnings; accounts for 85 percent of total employment; contributes 39 percent Gross Domestic Product; supplies over 65 percent of the manufacturing sector’s raw materials; and provides over 60 percent of the total income of rural people”— pledged to take a cue from the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP) and adhere to the CAADP principle that encourages African governments to spend at least 10 percent of their annual budgets on agriculture in order to achieve a minimum growth rate of at least 6 percent per annum.

Empty promises?

President Peter Mutharika, while opening the 45th Session of Parliament and the 2015/16 Budget Meeting in Lilongwe, indicated that his administration had readied itself to face the “looming food shortage” head-on, and “to ensure availability of food at household and national levels”.

Among other measures, he announced that the government had allocated K8.0 billion in the 2015/2016 budget for restocking the Strategic Grain Reserves. He also said the government had held discussions with development partners to provide more resources for the same purpose.

“Meanwhile, government, with support from development partners has provided early maturing maize seed, fertilizer, sweet potato vines and cassava cuttings to support affected smallholder farmers to revive their farming enterprises to take advantage of residual moisture and irrigation,” he said.

However, over eight months after Mutharika ignited the fire of hope among Malawians, challenges abound, one of which being that, while government and Admarc officials maintain that the country has enough maize stocks, citizens continue to queue on endless Admarc queues to purchase 10 kilogramme of maize.

However, Admarc Chief Executive Officer, Foster Mulumbe, maintained on Times Television’s Times Exclusive on February 13 that “We have enough maize stocks and reports that we [Admarc] are running short of maize stocks are not true”.

Mulumbe also dismissed reports that some people were sleeping at Admarc depots, saying “maybe those who go to Admarc deports and markets at 4 am do so to be in a good position when the depot or market’s official opening time comes”.

Whatever officials say, it is clear that the country is in food crisis, according to Right to Food Network Coordinator, Billy Mayaya. He said Malawi needed to go beyond implementing social protection programmes to creating an enabling legal environment in a bid to ensure that the state is held accountable when it fails in its duty to ensure the attainment of the right to food.

“While there are laudable efforts to provide social protection through initiatives such as FISP, there are still gaps in Malawi, as a state, fulfilling its obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food. The human right to food is a human rights concept which is justifiable. Justifiability refers to the ability by any party to take individuals and the State to court to seek legal redress in terms of proven violations of the right to food,” said Mayaya.

In centre of storm?

Malawi has been sailing in troubled food security waters since the 2014/15 agricultural season. The country’s miseries took a new turn when unfavourable weather conditions marred the 2014/2015 growing season. The bad weather cocktail menu included such dishes as heavy floods and prolonged dry spells.

According to a 2014/2015 crop estimates report , maize production decreased from 3,978,123 metric tonnes in the 2013/2014 agricultural season to 2,898,123 metric tonnes, representing a 27.7 percent decline.

The report also indicated that the country registered a “slight decrease” in the production of other major food crops such as rice, millet, cassava and sorghum.

The only good news was that, apart from cotton and groundnuts, other cash crops such as
pulses registered a “slight increase” increase in production.

And, according to Mutharika, the government also initiated talks with “development partners to provide more resources for the same purpose”.

True to his words, well-wishers have not been hard to come by. In January this year, the Chinese government donated K6.8 biliyoni to help mitigate the country’s food crisis. The Egyptian government also donated K20 miliyoni towards the same cause.

Last year, the Japanese government donated $12.4 million to Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe through World Food Programme to shore up food security initiatives.

From good to bad?

It is so surprising that a nation that exported 306, 000 metric tonnes to Zimbabwe between March 2007 and April 2008 could, within eight years, be reduced to begging from well-wishers.

Everything was well between 2007 and 2008, Malawi was basking in glory as National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA) Chief Executive Officer, Nasinuku Saukila, “proudly” said in a recent interview that Malawi reaped from the deal.

“For your information, the deal created a value-chain in Malawi. The export of the 306, 000 metric tonnes created a horde of activity....There was a lot of activity that took place. To begin with, 306, 000 metric tonnes were transported by the Road Transport Operators Association (RTOA) [using] 28 metric-tonne carrying capacity trucks, translating into about 11, 000 truck-loads of maize and 6.1 million 50 kilogramme bags of maize. In short, here is the value-chain the deal created.

“In the first place, we look at the maize grain. We bought it locally, creating worth for producers in the process. The grain also had to be thoroughly cleaned and women from Ntandire, Bangwe, Chilomoni and other townships were engaged to winnow the maize grain and they were able to economically sustain themselves. We had cases where husbands were just drinking beer at home, sure that the wife would bring something at the end of the day, and we saw women carting K1, 000 or K2, 000 home daily and, at the end of the month, that is K30, 000 or K60, 000.

“The winnower maker also benefitted because of the extra demand for winnowers. It is job creation at its best. Secondly, the chemical supplier comes into the picture. The grain had to be fumigated and the local chemical industry did the job and got paid for that. Jobs were created, too, because extra workforce was needed to do that job. Thirdly, the bag manufacturing industry came into play because we had to package the maize grain. K550 million gross was generated by the bag manufacturing companies during that period. As I said earlier, 306, 000 metric tonnes translate into 28 metric tonne trucks, further translating into about 11, 000 truck-loads of maize and 6.1 million 50 Kilogramme bags of maize. Then, we have the actual maize inspector. Malawi maize had to conform to the standards applicable in Zimbabwe, thus inspectors had to be engaged, generating extra funds in the process while creating job opportunities. Then, we talk of transportation and the motor industry,” Saukila said at the time.

Compare and contrast the situation to February 2016. There is “a horde of activity”, yes; but the activity is about delivering relief items to hunger stricken families, or maize delivery activity at an Admarc depot or market.


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