Malawi: hunger in a land of plenty
Thursday, March 24, 2011
By Paul Jeffrey
Alidia Josephine worries about her son Yohani. The two-year old hasn’t grown as he should, and his big belly, listlessness and reddened hair all indicate he is malnourished. When he got severe diarrhea and started vomiting blood, Josephine took him to the hospital in a nearby city where health care workers gave her some oral rehydration salts. That helped him weather the immediate crisis, but they told him the only long term solution for Yohani’s health problems was better nutrition. That’s a difficult challenge for parents like Josephine, because it’s the hunger season in her village in southern Malawi.
There isn’t supposed to be hunger in Malawi these days. President Bingu wa Mutharika, who took office in 2004 when the country was suffering severe food insecurity, has made producing enough grain a top priority. As a result, Malawi today produces a surplus of corn, the country’s dietary staple. It’s a feat pulled off with help from a multi-million dollar subsidy programme that provides farmers with coupons for low-cost fertiliser and seeds.
“The government has given food security high priority and worked hard at systematically improving agricultural production. Its subsidy programme has done a lot to reduce hunger in a short time,” said Kari Oyen, the representative in Malawi for Norwegian Church Aid, a member of the ACT Alliance.
Yet Oyen warns that the programme is consuming a majority of the country’s agricultural budget, a practice that isn’t sustainable in the long term. And more urgently, it doesn’t reach everyone.
“Although there is food at a national level, it isn’t distributed equally throughout the country. There are places where even in a good year people simply can’t grow enough food to feed their families until the next harvest,” she said. “In many communities farmers have assets they can monetise, farm animals or cash crops that they can sell to buy food until the next harvest time. Yet some farmers are so poor that they have no additional resources to sell. So they go hungry, even though 500 meters away there may be a market filled with food.”
The coupons for subsidised fertiliser and seeds are plagued with problems. In some areas there aren’t enough coupons to go around, and local chiefs control who gets them, leading to accusations of favouritism. In other areas, people simply can’t afford the cash payment required in addition to the coupon; many of these unused coupons end up being traded for a pittance to larger farmers. And in some areas of Malawi, farmers have used the coupons to buy subsidised fertiliser and seeds, then prepared and planted their fields only to watch as their investment literally died from the lack of seasonal rains.
“More than a decade ago, the rains were regular, so we knew when to plant and when to harvest. But the climate has changed, and we’re going hungry as a result,” said Petro Mhona, a leader in Chisatha, a village along the country’s southern border with Mozambique.
In Mhona’s village, the ACT Alliance is helping those left out of Malawi’s agricultural bounty. Villagers are installing an irrigation system that will use solar power to pump water from a river into a reservoir they have excavated, and from there into a collection of six 5,000 litre tanks, from which water will flow into irrigated fields below. Churches Action in Relief and Development (CARD), an ACT Alliance member, is providing food to the families while the system is built, at the same time providing training in improved agricultural techniques, including those that will increase soil fertility and lessen the need to utilise costly fertiliser, while also encouraging the use of crops like millet and sorghum, which are more drought-resistant than corn. CARD has also provided baby goats to the community. The goats function as a capital reserve for the village’s families; as their herds grow, people can eat the goat meat or sell the goats if needed to bridge lean months between harvests.
Mhona says the community is excited about the changes. “We had a government programme a few years ago that tried to get us to produce more food. They put up signs and did all the work, but they didn’t really train us in anything, so when they left we were worse off than when they came,” he said. “But now we’ve got hope for real change. Before the project started, many families were eating just one meal a day of boiled bananas. Now, with the help from ACT, we’re eating two meals a day. And when the harvests come in, we’re planning on eating three.”
The ACT Alliance programme is funded by a €1.4 million grant from the Norwegian government, and carried out by five members of the ACT forum in the country: CARD, the Livingstonia Synod of the Presbyterian Church, the Blantyre Synod of the Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Development Service (ELDS), and the Christian Health Association of Malawi.
Chifundo Macheka, a project assistant for CARD, said the funding is being well leveraged into long-term change. “Corn is the main staple in Malawi, but it mostly depends on rain. Some people haven’t harvested much because of the drought. We can help by just giving them food when they’re hungry, but they’ll just eat it and forget. It’s much better to help them install small-scale irrigation projects so that they can be assured of a crop, and perhaps even plant a second crop. They’ll have enough food to eat and hopefully some left over to sell,” she said.
In Dickson, the village where Josephine worries about her malnourished son, it’s the ELDS that’s carrying out the ACT-financed programme. And it comes just in time, according to Josephine, who says she’s been feeding her four children just one meal of boiled roots every day, roots she digs out of swampy areas of the nearby Shire River. Josephine received coupons for government-subsidised fertiliser and seeds last year, but her investment withered in the field when the rains didn’t come.
Today she’s working fields that are irrigated, thanks to help from ELDS, which has provided her with corn for her family to eat while they wait for the new crop to mature.
“After this season, with the irrigation system we have built, we’ll be healthier. We’ll eat two or three times a day, and Yohani won’t be sick and malnourished anymore,” she said.
According to Dingiswayo Jere, the coordinator of the ACT Alliance Forum in Malawi, ACT members worked with government officials to convince them of the need for a targeted response, and the government gave the approval necessary to obtain the funding, which is managed by Norwegian Church Aid.
“The government works with national figures, and at a national level there is overall food security. But ACT Alliance works in particular communities where we know there is a food deficit.
“As the ACT Alliance, we’ve got to respond to people who are hungry, without waiting for governments to make declarations about the situation,” he said.
A large gallery of images from Paul Jeffrey on Malawi can be accessed by registered users of the ACT media library here: http://www.photos.actalliance.org/?c=410