Lilongwe — Drought in parts of Malawi spelled disaster for farmers like Saukila who live from harvest to harvest, surviving on what they can grow. Fortunately other areas of the country were spared, leaving a surplus that WFP and its partners are using to assist communities hit by the drought.
Beneath a clear blue sky, Saukila Black is bent double, hoeing the parched, dark earth of the small plot she farms near Phalombe in southern Malawi. The dry heat is intense at this time of year as farmers across Malawi wait for the rainy season to start. Tied snugly to her back as she prepares the ground for planting, is her nine month old daughter - one of five hungry mouths that she will have to feed until the new harvest arrives in March next year.
As subsistence farmers, Saukila and her husband plant each year in the hope of growing enough food to last them through to the next harvest. But last year, the lack of rain spelled disaster. The maize they harvested barely lasted the family three months, and when it ran out, the hunger season began early.
"For now, we have cut back and we only eat in the morning and at night," Saukila says. "It's always difficult for the children to go to sleep on an empty stomach, so we skip lunch and eat in the evening."
Saukila is among almost 2 million people in southern and central Malawi whose crops from the last harvest were devastated by the drought. Around 1.8 million people are receiving monthly food rations from WFP, while just over 100,000 will get cash to buy food, delivered to them through mobile phones and local banks as part of a new programme that has been set up by WFP.
Rising food prices on local markets and fuel shortages that are slowing the transportation of food to areas where the shortages are being felt, have exacerbated an already challenging situation.
"We started in August, and we are increasing our assistance as we go further into the lean season," says Marta Fontan, head of WFP's sub office in Blantyre, on the frontline of the emergency. "We give them pulses for protein, cereals, corn soya blend and oil. It's a family ration to help them survive and also to make sure that if they have one goat, they don't sell the assets they have. We want to help them to avoid getting into a bad situation."
With the new rainy season due to start imminently, anxiety levels are rising in the smallholder farming communities of southern and central Malawi. The decision about when to plant their seed is a gamble. Get it right and they have a chance of avoiding another long hungry season. Get it wrong, and they will lose their investment in seed and fertiliser, and face another year of shortages.
"The rains have been so erratic," Saukila says, recalling the trials of the last planting season, "We planted for the first time, and the crops died due to the lack of rain. We then planted for a second time, and they didn't survive. It was only at the third attempt that they finally grew."
Fortunately, the rains did not fail all over Malawi during the last planting season. In some areas of the country, farmers produced a healthy surplus and this is being moved to regions that have been worst affected by the drought. In an arrangement known as "twinning," UKAID is paying for the transportation of 25,000 metric tons of maize donated by the Malawi government, from its Strategic Grain Reserve in Lilongwe.
At the food distribution site in Phalombe, smallholder farmers queue patiently in the searing heat to register for food. Their monthly rations include bags of the maize that have been moved from the Strategic Grain Reserve in Lilongwe and rations of pigeon peas purchased in Malawi using UKAID funding, as well as Super Cereal - part of a US$20 million donation from the United States Agency for International Development.
"The food that WFP is providing here in Phalombe is really making a difference," says WFP Field Monitoring Assistant, Patricia Nyongopa. "They are now having breakfast, lunch and dinner, which they would not really manage without WFP's help."