"It's shameful that the UDF party wants to take us back to the dark days,"

Mr Gwanda Chakuamba (2003)

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Malawi’s road to food security

Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika is a proud man.

being the president of one of Africa’s poorest countries may not elicit
pride, the head of state, who is also the country’s minister for
agriculture, walks tall for achieving -- in just under three years --
what no other African head of state has done.

people are no longer hungry, they no longer queue for hours waiting for
food rations; we can feed them for at least one year should food
production fail due to circumstances beyond our control, such as
drought and floods,” the president told the Sunday Nation in Lilongwe.

He added: “You cannot be proud if you cannot feed your family; everybody looks at you with pity.”

The road to Malawi’s food security is a study in determination and sacrifice at the highest level of government.

journey started in 2005 when the landlocked country faced its worst
food crisis after crops were destroyed by drought and floods in
different parts of the country, forcing it to import 400,000 tonnes of

The imports came in slowly because Malawi had to rely on South Africa’s road network, which is also used by Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Jeff Luhanga, the officer in charge of agricultural extension at the
ministry of agriculture, narrates with sadness  how Malawians across
the country would queue for days, only to walk away with a ration that
would hardly last a week.

“It was sad watching people, hungry and emaciated, standing endlessly in the sweltering heat for just a can of grains,” he said.

images on state television and splashed all over by the international
media were too much for President Mutharika. He summoned Mr Luhanga and
demanded to know why people who were hardworking, strong and had land
could not feed themselves.

The answer astounded the president: “They cannot afford farm inputs, mainly hybrid seeds and fertilisers.”

Mr Mutharika decided that if all they needed was seeds and fertilisers
to feed the country, the government would make them available. But the
question was how?

The president sought the wisdom of donors, but they said an emphatic no. He was told his plan would not work.

But 15 years ago when farmers got subsidies, the country produced enough food.

had changed? He formed a committee which, under his direct supervision,
worked out a  subsidy programme through which 1.5 million farmers would
be supported by the government in a pilot scheme.

year, not only did Malawi produce enough maize, it also collected twice
as much, managed to export some and still offered food aid to its
neighbours. “The results were simply shocking,” said Mr Luhanga.

“When in 2007 we repeated and sustained productivity, the very world that shunned us for defying its advice started talking.”

Mutharika committed $50 million (Sh3.7 billion) to help farmers to
obtain seeds and fertilisers. And in the first year, the country
produced 1.3 million tonnes of maize, way above the national

Suddenly, the country was producing 3.6 million tonnes, more
than double its needs. It immediately exported 160 million tonnes,
donated 10,000 to Lesotho and Botswana and retained the rest for its
strategic reserves.

“This year, the donors are
sitting with us, wanting to be part of what they told us would fail
three years ago,” said the proud president. “Some want to fund seeds,
others want to fund fertilisers, others want to fund irrigation, others
farmer training, the proposals are many.”

Mutharika is now the darling of international development and food
agencies. They are flocking to Malawi  to find out how the country has
turned around from being a net importer of food to an exporter and

Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia are among
countries that have travelled to the southern African country to borrow
a leaf from the farmer subsidy programme so that they may replicate it
in their countries as the search for food security takes centre stage.

focus on Malawi is making policy makers start contemplating starting
giving farm subsidies to overcome the food crisis that  is condemning
millions of people to starvation.

Mr Akinwumi
Adesina, who heads the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa
(Agra), that is championing the farm subsidy cause for the continent,
says no country has ever achieved food security without farm subsidies.

He criticises the West, which he says subsidises its
farmers while asking governments in the developing world to abandon
theirs. Governments in the EU and the US spend an estimated $237
billion on agricultural subsidies yet advise Africa not to support its
farmers, Dr Adesina noted.

He said the only difference between a farmer in Europe and his counterpart in Africa is government support.

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