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Enslaved to maize

24 May 2013 | By Vitu Chinoko

Maize is a political crop that has essentially enslaved Malawi as a nation. Vitu Chinoko explains the impact of climate change and why we need to re-think Malawi's agricultural future.

Despite being the staple diet of millions of ordinary Malawians, maize is not only one of the least nutritious foodstuffs in Malawi, but our blinkered monoculture production of it is both outdated and increasingly expensive.

Conservation farming scheme Abod

Annie Mathiya walks through a field of maize in a small village near Mulanje, Malawi, where Christian Aid partner CARD have helped set up micro-finance and enviromental farming schemes.

The trouble with maize

Since it requires enormous amounts of water in order to mature properly, erratic weather systems and frequently failing rains over the past few decades have made it progressively more difficult to cultivate without using harmful fertilisers, which only serve to further degrade the already-exhausted soil.

Recklessly placing the nation’s food security in the careworn hands of donor goodwill to prop up the farm input subsidy program (FISP). Malawi is trapped in a downward spiral, not least because the state’s calculated provision of one maize fertiliser coupon per family per farming season is always guaranteed to be a vote winner. 

Maize is entrenched in Malawian culture

The big dilemma is that maize is truly entrenched in Malawian culture, even though it actually originated from South America in the early 19th century.

Initially, the crop did well because most parts of sub-Saharan Africa received enough rain. But now, due to the increasingly devastating effects of climate change, it is proving it extremely difficult to grow, and our over-dependence on it is a serious threat to the country’s food security.

In the 2011/12 overall national budget, a massive 19% was spent on agriculture, with the majority of this channelled into the FISP to buy maize seeds and fertiliser.

There have been many calls to diversify food production into cultivating crops such as easily-stored sweet potatoes and nitrogen-fixing legumes like soybeans. But the government and others insist on committing resources to the unrelenting production of maize.

Impact of Malawi's agricultural spend

Maize in Malawi Etmb Malawi’s enormous agricultural spend is both a blessing and curse of course. Despite poor rains, the years between 2005 and 2009 stand out as a good example of when Malawi was food secure because of the FISP.

On the other hand, however, investment in maize production has reduced expenditures in other equally important sectors such as health, education and infrastructure.

Indeed, the agricultural budget could have been invested in farming innovation and farmer knowledge, more extension workers, research, and dissemination of methods to produce alternative crops in ways that are more sustainable.

Food security dependent on donors

The most painful fact is that that the FISP has been supported by the international donor community either through loans and grants, and the Malawian government has failed to come up with sustainable exit to the programme.

Surely it is irresponsible for any government to allow the food security situation to become dependent on the benevolence of donors?

Population growth and land shortages

There are also real concerns about rapid population growth and the resulting land shortages affecting crop production, and maize in particular.

Cities are growing in Africa, as is the population of Malawi, and this naturally results in housing eating away at surrounding land that was formerly used for agricultural purposes.

In 2009 Malawi was reported to be the fastest urbanising country in Africa and the process is proving to be unstoppable now. However, I believe that we have plenty of land in Malawi that is still idle, both along the Lake and even in the uplands. 

Climate change

What is clear is that our agricultural land is badly managed in many ways, due to the severe lack of extension workers to help advise farmers on new ways to best work their land.

In the wake of climate change, we need to kick start the processes desperately needed to regenerate our soils, through conservation agriculture, organic manure production, and other sustainable farming approaches.

Agriculture is becoming less and less profitable, and people no longer really believe that their wealth and security can come from agriculture alone.

Yes, as a nation we are dependent on agriculture, but most farmers, especially the subsistence peasant farmers, report dwindling revenues from agriculture due to climate change, the high cost of fertilisers, and a lack of value chain development initiatives such as food processing plants, intelligent crop storage, and improved transport to markets.

Malawi's agricultural future

Maize farmer Ludoviko Kasavka Etmb My belief is this: we cannot improve Malawi's national economy through the hoe and spade. We need to craft a programme that will graduate semi-commercial farmers to fully-fledged commercial farmers.

To make this possible we need to produce more and better quality crops, and embrace added value initiatives, including switching to more sustainable farming practices and developing the entire market system for alternative crops.

Far more collaboration between the Malawian government, farmer organisations, buyers, and input and service providers is needed. It is the only practical way to exploit the international market.

Finally, we need to manage our obsession with tobacco as a commercial export crop. Once our top foreign-exchange earner, it is now a pariah crop in international circles, and any further investment in tobacco is a slow suicide.


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Find out more

Vitu's blog also appeared in  the Independent .

Climate justice - Christian Aid campaign.

Christian Aid in Malawi - our work on HIV, hunger and climate change. 

See how climate change is affecting Christian Aid partners farming in India .  

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  About the author

Vitu Chinoko, programme officer for Christian Aid Malawi

Vitumbiko Chinoko is a programme officer at Christian Aid Malawi.