Lilongwe — The newly appointed chairperson for the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Malawi President Joyce Banda, has called upon fellow leaders to champion agricultural development and agro-industries production as a means to promote regional integration.
An enthusiastic welcome greeted Banda's appearance during the Southern African leaders annual summit, which started on Saturday with an endorsement of the disputed elections in Zimbabwe that extended President Robert Mugabe's 33-year rule by another five years.
Choosing to focus on agricultural investment's key role in ending regional poverty, she said that although agriculture is a key to development, countries must add value to their products.
"In much of our region, agriculture is the largest employer and biggest generator of foreign exchange. Stimulating this sector would transform the livelihoods of our people and provide the foundation for the future development of our nations," she said. "We need to work harder to help our smallholder and commercial farmers to build, grow and sustain their businesses, to feed ourselves and access new markets beyond our region."
With tobacco representing one of the major cash crops in the region, Malawi's leader expressed concern about the tobacco anti-smoking lobby being championed by the World Health Organization.
"Malawi would like to voice serious concern over the legislation that is being enacted globally for the removal of tobacco additives and flavorings," she said, adding that the lobby has "an adverse and dire impact" on tobacco farms both small and large.
Seventy percent of Malawi's foreign exchange income comes from tobacco sales.
Banda also called on regional leaders to improve maternal health, noting that Malawi has made progress in this area, which is Millennium Development Goal Number five. Statistics show that Malawi has reduced its maternal death rate by more than half in the past three years.
Some in the audience thought the SADC leader focused too much on agriculture in her speech.
"It's a missed opportunity because most people expected her to talk about issues of climate change," said Gift Manyozo, a social commentator from Zambia. "You cannot talk about agriculture these days without mentioning how you are going to avert climate change. There are quite a number of issues - like tourism, mining as one of the booming industries - so she was supposed to at least make a clear mention of these ones knowing fully that it's no longer agriculture which drives the economies in the SADC region."
Malawi's Minister of Mining, John Bande, disagreed, saying his government prioritizes issues affecting the mining industry.
"I think on the point of mining, we will capitalize on what the current president as an SADC chair has taken," he said. "For instance, she is talking about the regional integration and what we think is that what we have can be sold in other countries as far as mining is concerned. For example, we have very good coal that stretches from Moatiz in Mozambique into Malawi, coal being a major component in smelting and powering of manufacturing plants."
By the end of the two-day SADC heads of state session, leaders are expected to endorse the Southern African Development Community's master plan for infrastructure development.