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MALAWI: Input delays could affect next year's harvest

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


Some five million Malawians are threatened by the food crisis

BLANTYRE, 12 Oct 2005 (IRIN) - Malawi could face yet another crop failure if its small-scale farmers do not receive promised subsidised fertiliser this month, and escalating maize prices have further jeopardised food security, warn humanitarian workers on the ground.

"We are standing at the crossroads at the moment - the food security situation could go either way, depending on the amount and the timing of the humanitarian aid," said Sam Chimwaza, country representative of the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS-NET).

"There is very little or no maize available at the ADMARC outlets [the state grain marketer, which sells subsidised maize]. Prices have gone up. The efforts of the government and other aid agencies in distributing humanitarian aid are a bit slow," he added.

Malawi is in the grip of food shortages brought on by the worst drought in a decade, compounded by the late delivery of fertilisers and seed. Around 80 percent of the country's workforce are subsistence farmers who depend on fertilisers to grow crops.

In July the Malawian government gave in to the opposition's demands and agreed to subsidise fertilisers to small-scale maize and forex-earning tobacco farmers across the board. About a month later, unable to cope with the costs involved, the authorities replaced the universal fertiliser subsidy programme with a coupon system, which gave a limited number of subsistence producers access to fertilisers at half the commercial price.

"Provided the rains are on time this year, farmers in the southern region [most affected by the current drought] can start planting this month, followed by the central region in the first half of November, and the extreme northern region in the first half of December. All these farmers need to have access to fertilisers before they begin planting," said an aid worker.

The Malawian ministry of agriculture and irrigation said it had started distributing the fertiliser coupons.

"We are trying to ensure that we cover all the regions before the planting season is completed. We have distributed almost a million fertiliser coupons in the southern region, where we started on 3 September. We are expecting to pump at least 147,000 mt of fertilisers before the planting season ends," Alex Namaona, the chief economist at the ministry of agriculture and irrigation told IRIN.

However, humanitarian workers point out that the quantity of fertiliser being made available was "too little", and farming families battling to feed their families could not afford the commercial rates.

Malawi's fertiliser requirement in a normal year was between 180,000 mt and 230,000 mt, according to Tesfai Ghermazien, the emergency coordinator at the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in Malawi. UN aid agencies have raised about US $7.5 million to procure fertiliser for Malawi, which would buy only 13,000 mt to 15,000 mt of fertiliser.

Around half the 147,000 mt of fertiliser to be accessed via the coupon system is being procured locally and the rest will be imported. Vulnerable farmers are entitled to two coupons each, which will allow them to buy two 50 kg bags at about $8 per bag from local government offices in the villages on a first-come, first-served basis. The usual commercial price is between $20 and $32 per bag.

The government is also distributing a limited quantity of subsidised maize seeds - 6,000 mt - through local government outlets.

An aid worker pointed out that in the southern Nsanje district there would only be 10,000 coupons for around 75,000 small-scale farming households. "The coupons are being distributed in a first-come, first-served basis - it is too little and, ultimately ... those who do get the fertilisers would be the vulnerable that have the money, so the really vulnerable will not benefit. I think the universal subsidy for small-scale farmers was the better option".

Namaona defended the government's policy, saying, "We cannot expect miracles. Ideally, we would like to distribute almost 500,000 mt of fertiliser, making it affordable for each and every farmer, but unfortunately we have limited resources. We are already spending 4.7 billion kwacha [about $ 37.7 million] on the coupon system to ensure that most smallholder farmers have access to fertilisers."

He added that the universal subsidy programme was more prone to abuse, as "people from across the border could have come and bought fertiliser here - at least with this system we are helping our smallholder farmers."

Analysts are critical of the inconsistencies in government policies.

A recent USAID-commissioned report, 'The Governance Dimensions of Food Security in Malawi', highlighted similar inconsistencies in the Bingu wa Mutharika administration's stand on universal fertiliser distribution last year, which was partly responsible for the current food shortages.

Mutharika promised subsidised fertiliser in the run-up to the May 2004 elections, and advised farmers against purchasing fertilisers until the government announced new prices when his administration assumed power.

The announcement never came, the USAID report pointed out. Instead, towards the end of October the government announced an Extended Targeted Input Programme (EXTIP) - the free distribution of free seeds and fertiliser to the rural poor.

The original Targeted Input Programme (TIP) ran for two consecutive maize-growing seasons in 2000/01 and 2001/02, and provided small-scale farmers with an agricultural inputs pack containing fertiliser, maize seed and legume seeds. Although the programme received widespread acclaim, there were problems in implementing it.

Despite the delays in issuing tenders for fertiliser in 2004, over 90 percent of the required amount was delivered to Malawi. However, distribution was delayed, with some villages only receiving the fertiliser in January.

The politicisation of food security was "nearly unavoidable, given that state legitimacy is so dependent on maize availability. It is almost inconceivable that government would long survive in Malawi if maize availability and affordability were jeopardised. This truism perhaps explains Mutharika's seemingly rash June 24 2005 campaign promise, which followed on the heels of Malawi's worst food shortage in years", said the USAID report.

"Unfortunately, people are the victims," commented an aid worker.

The authorities do not seem to have learnt from the past and keep making the same mistakes, according to analyst Boniface Dulani. "It is time that they stopped politicising the issues and concentrated on efforts to improve the food security in the country - there is no clarity on the polices being implemented."

He also alluded to the fact that Mutharika has been distracted from the food security issue because of the ongoing political bickering between him and his political rival, former president of the country and chairman of the United Democratic Front (UDF), Bakili Muluzi. The verbal duel has raged since June, when the UDF proposed an impeachment motion because Mutharika had left the party after it sponsored him in the national elections.

Besides the critical issue of agricultural inputs, a growing population and limited arable hectarage has compounded Malawians' ability to produce and access food. The country's inheritance patterns, which result in land being equally divided among surviving siblings, has led to an average arable landholding of .23 ha per capita, and even less in the southern region, according to the USAID report.

"Land is far more inequitably distributed than income ... because much of the best land is occupied by agricultural estates", forcing most Malawians to rely on the market to procure maize. "This places them at the mercy of highly volatile food prices, which tend to be low at harvest and higher during the growing or the 'hungry season' (December to March)," the report commented.

Many small-scale farmers resort to working as casual labour on the estates for a pittance - about 29 US cents a day, which still put maize beyond the reach of many. According to Denis Banda of the Plantation and Agriculture Workers Union, labourers often earned as little as $8 a month, so "they cannot afford to eat".

An aid worker pointed out that the government had initiated public works projects, like road construction, to help small-scale farmers cope, and be able to afford inputs for the next season.

The USAID report suggested a series of actions, such as keeping a lid on unrealistic promises, preventing erratic policy swings, dampening down ad hoc policy-making, and avoiding delays in critical policy implementation. "If utilised effectively, they would lend more predictability to state actions that encourage private sector investment".

The Malawian government should also plan multi-year inputs as a longer-term strategy to ensure availability of fertiliser and seeds to vulnerable smallholders in a sustainable way.

USAID warned against too much donor influence, which has prevented ordinary Malawians from assuming control over food security policies.

An aid worker conceded that most Malawians were out of the policy loop. "For example, many are not aware of the fertiliser coupons - there is not much networking between the government agencies and people on the ground".

Meanwhile, the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that the number of people in need of food aid could rise to five million in the coming months. "Very clearly, the food needs of Malawians are exceeding our anticipated figures," said WFP spokesman Mike Huggins.

Food experts previously estimated the number of people facing food shortages during the 2005/06 marketing year (April/March) at around 4.2 million, or 34 percent of the total population, but that figure was based on a maize price-band of 19-23 kwacha/kg (about 14 to 18 US cents).

But some southern districts have already recorded prices of nearly 33 kwacha (about 26 US cents). Admissions at nutritional rehabilitation units (NRUs) for August 2005 showed a 29 percent nationwide increase compared to August 2004, according to aid agencies, and a NRU in the Nsanje district recorded 29 deaths in the first eight months of this year.

"The WFP is now planning to feed up to 2.9 million people in the southern districts until January next year," said Huggins. A Vulnerability Assessment Committee report due later this month could paint a clearer picture of the required needs.

FEWS-NET's Chimwaza said the Malawi Meteorological office had predicted better rainfall in the coming season. "I am optimistic - maybe the situation might improve next year."

 Theme(s) Economy
Other recent MALAWI reports:

Embattled street vendors get a reprieve,  15/Feb/06

Mutharika's former deputy to challenge his dismissal,  10/Feb/06

Opposition accuses Mutharika of score-settling,  9/Feb/06

Maize prices still rising,  7/Feb/06

Public works programme to combat poverty extended,  1/Feb/06

Other recent Economy reports:

SENEGAL: On the lookout for bird flu in world’s third biggest reserve, 21/Feb/06

PAKISTAN: USAID voucher programme makes difference in quake-affected north, 20/Feb/06

IRAQ: Loss of oil revenue hampers reconstruction efforts, 19/Feb/06

NIGERIA: Militants seize 9 foreigners in new attack, cause cut in oil exports, 19/Feb/06

ZAMBIA: Lack of funds hampers bird flu surveilliance, 17/Feb/06

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