September 17, 2010

Food surplus creates political storm

A surplus production of maize, Malawi's staple food, will not prevent at least one million people from being food insecure, a forecast that has not pleased President Bingu wa Mutharika. "I am disappointed that despite the ministry of agriculture and food security releasing crop estimates that Malawi has actually posted surpluses in the production of the staple crop, maize, some newspapers are reporting that over a million Malawians will require urgent food aid," he said. Two crop assessments appear to have given rise to the situation.

According to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Food Security Early Warning System, more than one million Malawians face starvation because of poor rains. And local farmers confirm the SADC's assessment. They say they live from hand to mouth and are struggling with malnutrition and poverty.

"There is a lot of hunger. We also lack clothes and cannot pay our children's school fees," says Gordon Kudimba, a smallholder from Mkama, a rural village in Salima district, 100km east of Malawi's capital, Lilongwe. But Mutharika wants to hear nothing of such complaints. In a televised state address on August 26 he threatened to close down local newspapers "that lie and tarnish my government's image" because they reported food insecurity warnings.

He claims Malawi harvested 2.4-million tonnes this year, leaving a surplus of more than 400.000 tonnes for export. Although the SADC's food security update also noted a surplus, its agricultural experts warn that this will not prevent at least one million of the country's 13-million people from being food insecure and requiring humanitarian assistance.

Maize, rice, millet and wheat production have been "seriously affected by dry spells in most parts of the country from December 2009 to February 2010", the report states. But Mutharika has vowed he will not ask for food aid. He believes farmers receive sufficient support through the $185-million seed and fertiliser programme he launched five years ago.

Although the programme was initially hailed a success, numerous international experts have meanwhile questioned how many farmers have actually benefited from it. In 2008 a public outcry shook the country when it became known that rich businessmen bought off fertiliser stocks to resell them at exorbitant prices.

Despite all his bravado Mutharika is expected to apply for money from the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme by the end of September. The programme is managed by the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, administered by the World Bank and based on a $22-billion pledge by the G8.

One of the programme's four pillars is to increase food and nutrition security. But those funds might come too late for Malawi's smallholder farmers’ who say this year's harvest is too modest to feed even their own families. Recurring floods and droughts in past years have made it almost impossible for them to make an income or have savings, leaving them trapped in a cycle of poverty and vulnerability.

Without assistance from government, they rely for their survival on the help of international donors, such as the Red Cross, which launched an irrigation and disaster prevention programme in Salima district in 2007. Says Kudimba: "If we didn’t have support from an organisation like the Red Cross, we would still starve today." (Mail&Guardian/IRIN)


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