Blantyre, Malawi — Malawi's government is trying to ease the impact of a food shortage by rationing the country's staple crop, maize. The move has sparked a steep increase in the price of maize on the parallel market.
The latest report by the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee indicates that nearly two million of Malawi's 13 million people are facing hunger because of prolonged dry spells, flooding and low yields of maize.
The committee, which includes government departments, the United Nations, embassies and humanitarian agencies, says poor households from the worst-hit districts will face a food shortage until the next harvest season begins in April.
The situation is compounded by rationing recently put in place by government's main grain marketer, the Agriculture Development and Marketing Corporation, which is limiting maize sales to 10 kilograms per customer.
In his capacity as deputy minister of agriculture before he was given a new portfolio last weekend, Ulemu Chilapondwa said the move is meant to protect the poor from vendors who are selling the grain at an exorbitant price.
"If you can actually check person by person, you can find that very few people can manage more than 10 kilograms, but vendors can manage, so the aim of the government is to serve the poor."
But the consumer rights body, Consumers Association of Malawi, says the rationing further aggravates hunger among average Malawians, in part because ADMARC makes people stand in long lines.
John Kapito, the group's executive director, says "We are saying that it becomes a bit difficult, because the families have to stay there for much longer time for them to get that 10 kilograms of maize. And when you consider the time they have wasted and the amount of maize they have collected there it does not make any sense."
Mother of six, Christina Jere is a resident of Ndirande Township in the commercial capital Blantyre.
"This is a big problem to us with big families, because the 10 kilograms lasts for two days and this is also impacting negatively of our day household chores, " Jere said. "We are spending time queuing for maize at the ADMARC depots, sometimes even returning home without buying just because of extraordinary long queues."
She also said that despite the rationing private traders have taken advantage of the maize shortage by selling the staple grain at double the prices sold in ADMARC depots.
Until last year, Malawi had registered several years of a maize surplus, following the introduction of a fertilizer subsidy program in 2005.
The country earned a reputation of being an African food producer after it sold about 40,000 metric tons of maize to Zimbabwe and donated 5,000 metric tons each to Lesotho and Swaziland. But last week, media reports indicated nine people had died of hunger related illnesses in the central district of Dedza.
"I think there is something wrong which the government is doing because we know that somebody is keeping the maize," Kapito said. " The president can go to the rally and distributing 2,000 bags of maize, where is she is getting that maize?"
But Chilapondwa insists nothing is wrong, saying the country has enough maize to keep it going through the lean period.