Amid Maize Bumper Harvests in Malawi, Food Insecurity Reigns

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Despite Malawi producing abundant maize in the past years, food insecurity continues to linger. In 2018, the country produced 3.4 million tons of maize; 3.3 million tons in 2019 and 3.8 million tons expected in 2020. Malawi’s annual maize requirement is 3.1 million tons, indicating subsequent levels of surplus production over the years. Similar trends have also been observed for other crops like rice, pulses and roots/tuber crops. However, this has not translated into food security, the opposite has been the case.  

In 2018, 3.3 million Malawians were food insecure, 1.8 million in 2019, and 2.6 million anticipated in 2020. Food insecure imply households that need humanitarian support for their survival during the lean season (November to March). The key question therefore is “Why the paradox when the food insecurity trends does not follow abundance trends on diversified crops production”.  In search of solutions, it is important to go back to the basics, and generate four key lessons that keep emerging.  

Firstly, food security needs to be understood from its basic parameters of availability, access, utilization and stability. Government has mostly been investing on input subsidies to achieve food self-sufficiency, thus improve food availability.  However, studies have indicated inefficiencies as regards to targeting, fiscal burden and promoting monoculture production systems. Concurrent investments have been made by Government to purchase maize for humanitarian responses. Approximately 75% of the agriculture budget is devoted to subsidies and maize purchases in Malawi. 

Secondly, food availability is beyond maize production, includes dietary requirements. The food balance sheet currently includes maize, rice, sorghum and millet only leaving out other important crops. Recent agricultural estimates indicate good harvests for roots and tuber crops (potatoes, sweet potatoes and cassava – approximately 14 million tons), yet all not factored into the food balance sheet. The inclusion of these other crops has potential to promote dietary diversity.  

Thirdly, access to foods is not only dependent on own production, but also ability to purchase foods from the market to ensure a heathy diet. While the focus has been on more maize production, most farmers rely on the market for their food security needs. IFPRI estimated that 72% of the farmers in Malawi rely on the market to buy maize. This, therefore, underscores balancing efforts to make markets work for farmers. Oftentimes, ADMARC buy maize late from farmers and in limited quantities. During the last season, despite maize bumper production of 3.3 million tons, most of it was hoarded by private traders, who eventually sold at skyrocketed price when supply dwindled, pushing 1.9 million Malawians hungry. Government market interventions like export bans further created maize prices artificially low to have decent income for farmers, and disincentivize investment.  

Fourthly, stability of foods entails having enough nutritious foods that can be available all the time to assure diversified diets. Over the years, Malawi lost approximately 30,000 tons of maize meant for price stabilization due to poor storage by ADMARC. National post-harvest losses are high, estimated at an average of 22.7%. Furthermore, storage losses are more prevalent at farmer level.  

Thus, in order to ensure food security, within the scope of abundance crop production, the following mix of options need to be considered:  

  1. Diversify the national food balance sheet to reflect food consumption patterns of the population. This should include crops that have significant contribution to people’s consumption. This would ensure that a precise definition of food gap. 
  2. The role of markets is fundamental in addressing access and availability of foods, hence needs to be prioritized. Alongside this, there is need to remove unnecessary market distortions, ensure effective functioning of grain reserves and reduce post-harvest losses.  
  3. Where food insecurity prevails, social protection instruments like cash transfers have proven ideal, worthy to be integrated as part of strengthening resilience, restoration of assets and livelihoods. The distribution of grain when market works is graver, hence social cash transfer an ideal instrument. 
  4. The Strategic Grain Reserves (SGR) role comes in to support emergency and non-emergency operations. During bumper harvests, there is need to consider effective price stabilization while removing any unnecessary market distortions. The grain reserves need not to be limited to maize, but also other crops. Future and forward markets need to be explored than overly on physical grain stocks, which attracts storage costs and post-harvest losses. At regional level, SADC can also explore regional cooperation to ensure food self-sufficiency among its member countries. 

Yes, maize production is important but let’s also consider other diversified crops that define a consumption basket, while minimizing post-harvest losses. Production alone is not enough, markets must function to support the poor who are net food buyers. Where food gaps exist, there is need to explore options of forward contracts and redefine role of SADC in ensuring regional food security to its member countries. 

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Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes. Photo: World Bank
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Authors

Blessings Botha

Senior Agriculture Economist

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