October 26, 2002

Food security agricultural schemes introduced

Crop diversification, irrigation and the expansion of a free farm input scheme for subsistence producers are among the measures being introduced by the Malawian government to boost food output next year. "We have embarked on a civic education campaign to teach our people to diversify their eating habits and move away from a total dependence on maize to tubers for example, and other foods like rice," says agriculture minister Aleke Banda. He said the government was using social welfare workers in rural communities to spread the word on the value of drought-resistant crops like cassava over the staple maize, which is sensitive to climatic conditions.

Most of Malawi's rice, produced along the shores of Lake Malawi, is exported to Zambia and Zimbabwe rather than consumed locally. Cassava is traditionally eaten in the Northern Region, but has not been effectively marketed in the rest of the country. Food security in Malawi has been undermined by two poor drought-related seasons, which have left more than 3.3 million in need of aid until next year's harvest in April/May.

Although Malawi has an irrigation potential of 800,000 hectares, only 56,000 hectares have been developed, and of those just 8,000 are in the hands of small-scale producers as opposed to commercial estate owners. "The problem is the poverty factor, our people cannot raise the capital for irrigation," said Banda. "But unless we do something about improving irrigation we will not get out of the problem of low food yields." To that end the government has joined the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation in a project to provide 200,000 treadle pumps to poor rural families. "It will cost US$240 million to address the current food crisis. To buy 200,000 treadle pumps requires only US $80 million. It's a sensible investment to make," Banda said.

The government had introduced a free agricultural "starter pack" scheme in 1998/1999 for rural households, which was scaled down under donor pressure to more effectively target the poorest farmers. In response to the current food crisis, the government intends to pay for the expansion of the programme to reach an extra one million farm families from the current donor-funded two million. The starter packs contain fertiliser, maize seed and beans to cover a modest 0.1 hectares. But according to Banda, the expansion of the programme would allow Malawi to hit a production level of 2.3 million metric tonnes of maize, which it last achieved in 1999/2000. Domestic food consumption needs are 1.8 million metric tonnes. "We have to run the starter packs for three years to allow people to recover from the impact of the famine following two successive bad seasons. People need to build up surpluses to earn enough money to pay for their own inputs. We certainly do not wish to continue endlessly with it," explained Banda. (MALAWI INSIDER)

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