Putting Malawi’s food system front and center to save lives and livelihoods

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On March 20, 2020, Malawi’s President, Peter Mutharika, declared a State of Disaster due to the high risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. A few days later, on April 2, not far from my house in a residential area of Lilongwe, the first cases of COVID-19 were officially announced. To date 273 people have tested positive, with a death toll of four people.    

The time is ticking to save lives. We hope for the best, but the government is trying to prepare for the worst. A massive outbreak could severally hit Malawi, as the country faces chronic health care challenges. We are encouraged to see that the government has taken some proactive measures: it has put in place a Special Presidential task team to deal with the COVID-19 crisis and prepare a National COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan March-June 2020. The international community, including the World Bank, is quickly mobilizing resources to help with these efforts.

Malawi’s challenges go far beyond containing the outbreak and providing health services. The country’s chronic condition of nutrition and food insecurity can deteriorate further in the coming months and COVID-19 can make the fragile agri-based economic system fall apart. As observed in other African countries, in Malawi the economic deterioration is seemingly progressing faster than the health crisis. Agri-food sectors such as beef, dairy, cotton and seeds are seeing drops of up to 80% of sales compared to last year, as a result of reduced purchasing power and uncertainty in domestic and international markets.

A generous harvest in 2019-2020 farming season is a positive aspect in the current turmoil, but it is not enough to guarantee food security during the pandemic. With the growing season coming to an end, the Government recently estimated increases in production for maize, rice, and pulses. This means food should be available in local markets and prices still affordable –a much better context than in countries revealing food inflation, such as Zambia and Zimbabwe. Poor and very poor households in Malawi, in particular in urban and peri urban areas, will struggle to access food and income as a consequence of overall economic turbulence and measures to contain the outbreak.

In the immediate and short term, Malawi needs to step up its efforts to help the neediest access food in a scenario of mounting unemployment and severe restriction of movement. Because there is enough food in the market, expanding cash transfer programsis the most recommended immediate policy option to cope with the loss of income and help the neediest access food. However, for cash transfer to succeed, markets need to function. If food supply chains are upended or some places turn to acute hotspots of infection, food distribution is the sole policy option available. To expedite a rapid response to vulnerable segments of the population, the government should capitalize on existing social protection investments and the capacity of humanitarian organizations.

To ensure food security, Malawi needs to keep the food system going. Three immediate actions are needed:

  • Ensure the uninterrupted flow of production inputs, raw materials and final products to, across, and from the country. This includes providing safe conditions for transport operators and drivers, and keeping borders open.
  • Maintain and improve the operation of food markets and supply chains. Markets need to operate safely to supply rural and urban consumers; Malawi could profit from a great deal of examples in other countries where food markets are respecting struct hygiene protocols.
  • Make every effort to avoid the collapse of the private sector, in particular small- and medium-size agribusinesses. Agri-food related activities should be deemed essential in the case of lockdown, and businesses should be assisted both technically and financially.

In the medium term, post-COVID-19, the country will need to restore the agri-food sectors and focus on job creation more than ever before. Already before the pandemic, Malawi was facing the daunting challenge of creating jobs for over 400,000 young people that every year join the job market. After the pandemic, it will be essential to boost employment further through labor-intensive industries with value addition such as tea, coffee, soybean and dairy, linked to gastronomy, retail and tourism.  

Malawi is going through a tumultuous time, as are so many other countries. To weather the storm, the food system needs to play a central role in saving lives and protecting livelihoods. 

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Felix Elia Jumbe
June 13, 2020

The development of the structured commodity markets is a key as the commodity markets are becoming a remedy to the falling household food security.