Themba Hadebe/AP
Fuledi Makhaza tends to his crop of Chinese cabbages at Simpha village, north of Lilongwe,

In Malawi, Farms Progress Slowly

December 26, 2008 05:27 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
A year after Malawi became the biggest corn producer in southern Africa, farmers continue making strides, though they face challenges en route to self-sufficiency.

Striving for Simple Sustainability

In December 2007, Malawi was praised for taking charge of its agricultural sector and subsequently becoming the largest producer of corn in southern Africa. But despite the success, which resulted from fertilizer subsidies, today’s surging food costs “are canceling out the benefits for some people.” And the most needy of families are surviving on a single daily meal, according to Malcolm Fleming of Oxfam Scotland.

Fleming’s observations of Malawian agriculture were published in an October 2008 column for the BBC, which focused on the impact of rising food costs and climate change in Malawi. The “erratic rains and spells of drought,” which have severely limited harvests are particularly challenging, writes Fleming.

The BBC has charted Malawi’s progress over the past year, reporting on various innovations, such as rain-fed fishponds. In Malawi’s bushland settlements, hundreds of fish farmers are participating in a project headed by WorldFish Center, which has brought “small-scale aquaculture” to Malawian families, granting them “enough food and income to buy maize—even in years when droughts affect their crops.”

“This is simple and sustainable,” said Joseph Nagoli of WorldFish, highlighting perhaps the most crucial characteristics of the project. Nagoli said the fishing is “just one part of a family’s agriculture,” instead of the main focus, as it had been in previous projects.

Malawian agriculture got another boost in October 2008, when the World Bank initiated a “weather risk management contract to help Malawi protect itself against the risk of severe drought.” According to the World Bank, Malawi contends with “chronic drought” that damages crops and lowers farmers’ incomes, “negatively affecting the government’s budget.” Drought also results in higher maize prices for Malawian families.

But some African officials, such as Akinwumi Adesina of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, are still blaming the West for subsidizing their own farmers “while asking governments in the developing world to abandon theirs,” according to AllAfrica.com.

Malawi must continue taking charge of its agriculture to perpetuate positive changes, officials say.

Background: Making progress

In 2005, Malawi made an innovative attempt to overcome famine; it ignored the advice of global agriculture leaders and provided farmers with fertilizer subsidies. In late 2007, Malawi was recognized for becoming southern Africa’s leading producer and exporter of corn.

In the coming years, Malawi stands to benefit from a project developed by Bill Gates and Howard Buffett, Warren Buffett's son, which will donate more than $75 million to help “small farmers in Africa and Latin America to sell their crops as food aid,” according to Time magazine. Foundations led by Gates and Buffett are spearheading the five-year program, which is called Purchase for Progress.

The project’s crops will be sold to the UN World Food Program, a major distributor of food in Africa. But Purchase for Progress is particularly innovative because it also funds agricultural education, helping farmers with crop storage, the planting of more effective seeds and transportation of produce to market, rather than just buying farmers’ crops.

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