Blantyre — Following erratic rain and drought conditions, and then flooding, Malawi's agricultural successes have been imperilled by the elements.
Malawi's reputation for improving food production could be in peril. After years developing its capacity to feed itself, Malawi has recently suffered a series of devastating natural setbacks with thousands currently facing food shortages.
Besides last year's erratic rains and drought which reduced the maize harvest (the country's staple) by 7%, the southern African country has recently been hit by severe floods, displacing an estimated 10,000 households across ten districts.
Flood victims in the hunger season
The areas hardest hit by the floods are the southern districts of Phalombe, Mangochi and Nsanje and central districts of Salima and Dedza. The disaster washed away maize, rice farms and livestock, raising fears of a year of hunger. Worse still, government authorities say they are yet to assess the full extent of the damage as meteorologists predict further rainfall in some flood prone areas.
Baton Osman, Acting Country Director for the World Food Program (WFP) in Malawi, told reporters that an assessment team comprising Malawi government authorities, NGO partners, and United Nations officials will soon start evaluating the effects of the recent floods and the type of assistance affected households may require.
"We believe that due to the floods people may need more assistance, especially from January to March which is a peak period of the hunger season in Malawi. We are assessing the situation now and are ready to respond as required", said Osman.
However, a relief effort to provide the affected districts with food supplies, blankets and plastic sheeting has already been set in motion by both the government and the WFP. Government authorities are also appealing for donations from companies and private individuals for the thousands affected by the floods.
"We are calling upon local companies and other well-wishers to help with relief items since the government cannot do this alone", said Jeffrey Kanyinji, secretary of the Department of Relief and Disaster Preparedness. "Food is most important to the victims as they have lost everything."
From surplus to shortage
To exacerbate the situation, Malawi's floods come at a time when about 16 districts are facing acute food shortages. This is largely credited to the poor maize harvest last season due to erratic rains and drought. The 2012/13 report by Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee indicates that about 2 million households are currently facing severe food shortages.
The districts affected include: Chiradzulu, Zomba, Chikhwawa, Nsanje, Balaka, Blantyre, Mwanza, Neno, Phalombe and Ntcheu. Across these regions, the WFP has estimated that Malawi needs about $30 million to cushion people from hunger between December 2012 and March 2013.
The situation is particularly tragic considering the recent successes Malawi's farmers have had in providing adequate food for the nation. Malawi's Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP), introduced by late former president Bingu wa Mutharika in 2005, proved widely successful in meeting Malawi's food needs - despite reluctance of international donors to support the programme.
Under the initiative, the government sold fertiliser to targeted beneficiaries at a reduced price of $7 for a 50kg bag rather than the market price of around $27. The country soon began registering a surplus harvest of more than one million metric tons of maize - a trend which continued from 2005 until the erratic weather of 2011.
Malawi's consecutive bumper harvests also benefited neighbouring countries. For example, in 2007 Malawi exported 40,000 metric tons of maize to Zimbabwe. It also donated 5,000 metric tons of maize each to Lesotho and Swaziland.
Jeffery Sachs and Glenn Denning, food experts and economists from the Earth Institute at Columbia University in the US, commended Malawi's successful subsidy programme, describing it as an example of Africa's 'green revolution'. They recommended that other countries could learn from Malawi's example.
Meanwhile an article in Financial Times in 2007 entitled 'How the rich world can help Africa help itself' wrote: "The impact [of Malawi's subsidy programme] has stunned the doomsayers; it seems that an African green revolution is possible after all".
Malawi's food success story earned President Mutharika several international awards for transforming his country into a food exporter, a feat even more impressive considering Malawi was once reliant on international aid to feed half its population.
However, things started turning sour for Malawi's still donor dependent economy in 2010, when some donors, including the IMF, became angered at Mutharika's refusal to implement certain economic policies and increasingly authoritarian style of government. They subsequently began withholding aid including their financial contribution to the FISP.
Banda's crop conundrum
At present, President Joyce Banda's government needs to develop long-term strategies to reverse the devastation wrought by nature and reclaim Malawi's recent agricultural progress.
Thus far, the new president has embarked upon an initiative of buying maize from the national grain reserve and distributing it to households in hunger-stricken areas across the country. She has also suspended maize exports due to shortages.
By January 2013, over 30,000 metric tons of maize had reportedly been released under President Banda's food distribution exercise. However, this has raised fears that the reserves might become dangerously depleted.
Critics warned that depleting the national food reserve could slide Malawi into another acute food shortage, similar to the one in 1985 when the country was relying on donated maize from other countries. But the minister responsible, Peter Mwanza, parried these fears claiming the withdrawals did not pose a threat to the country's reserves.
"Yes we are taking out a large number of metric tons but the maize is still intact. It is not depleted yet", said Mwanza, "The information I have received from National Food Reserve Agency shows that by April we will still have 400,000 metric tons in reserve." Despite this reassurance, however, Banda herself has said the reserves could be depleted next year if there is another drought.
Complementing the government's efforts, another initiative - being undertaken by the WFP and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) - is providing about 1.8 million people with monthly rations.
Each family is getting 50kg of maize, 10kg of beans, 5kg of corn soya bran, and 5 litres of cooking oil. With this food aid people are able to have three meals a day as they await the uncertain outcome of this year's harvest.
However, the measures currently in place are only mitigating the havoc already wreaked by natural forces. The Malawian government, with the help of the international community, must work hard to find long-term solutions to overcome these setbacks, regain momentum, and consolidate the country's status as a successful African exporter of food. If not, Malawi and its people will remain at the mercy of the elements.
Lameck Masina is an established journalist living and working in Malawi.