Malawi: Balaka, Machinga Communities Surviving On Poisonous Wild Tubers

9 December 2019

The skyrocketing prices of maize on the market has forced scores of ultra-poor households in Balaka and Machinga to turn to bitter wild tubers for survival, a recent research by Center for Social Concern (CfSC) reveals.

The poisonous wild tubers

CfSC Rural Basic Needs Basket project officer, Kondwani Hara, said in an emailed interview with Nyasa Times that the locals are now surviving on wild tuers, which is locally known as mpama in the two districts.

Hara disclosed that CfSC, whose one of its mandates is to conduct research in rural areas on socio-economic issues that affect Malawians using the Rural Basic Needs Basket tool, through directly interacting with the rural communities, recently discovered that majority of the households in the two districts are food insecure; hence, they go to Chaone Hills to dig the bush yams.

"These wild yams known as mpama are not even palatable, but the families do not have any other option other than to eat these as a coping mechanism in order to survive. The situation is worse especially in the area of Group Village Head Mangulu in Traditional Authority Nsamala," he said.

Hara further stated that the people of Group Village Head (GVH) Mangulu in Machinga have also been heavily affected by hunger and are in urgent need of assistance from government and its development partners.

"The situation is life threatening, adding that the food shortages have also resulted in increased school drop-outs. One person from the area said every morning, pupils join their parents searching for wild tubers, roots and fruits, which they are feeding on. It was even more heart-breaking to learn that among the people who go to Chaone Hills to dig these wild tubers is a household headed by a 14 year old boy (name withheld). He skips school to make sure that his four siblings have something to eat," he explained.

Hara has since described the development as demeaning to human dignity. He argued that eating something that is not suitable or healthy for human consumption reduces someone's dignity.

He challenged government to outline sustainable strategies to ensure that citizens are enjoying household food security by fulfilling all four pillars of food security such as availability, accessibility, stability and adequacy throughout the year.

"It's sad this is happening at a time it is being reported that a huge tonnage of maize was left to rot in ADMARC warehouses. The right to adequate food is the right to dignity and life. Household food insecurity mainly affects pregnant and breastfeeding women and under five children. Malawi experience high percentages of malnutrition and this greatly affects the economy of the country," he said.

In March this year, the Malawi Government through the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development released a report, stating that Malawi had posted a surplus in maize production.

The announcement of surplus food by government influenced the smallholder farmers to sell the maize at cheaper price hoping to get the same maize from ADMARC at a cheaper price.

A few months after the government announced that it Malawi had posted a surplus in maize production, the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) reported that over 1.1million will need food assistance with a value of over MK18 billion.

Hara believes that the announcement about a surplus drove smallholder farmers into selling their maize to vendors who were offering as low as MK5000 per 50 kilogramme bag because ADMARC had not yet opened its markets.

"The poor farmers had no option, they had to sell their maize to the vendors, who either sold it out at high prices or hoard to sell it in the future when demand would be high and supply low. The government, through ADMARC, did not come on time to buy it for the strategic grain reserve," he said.

CfSC has suggested that government should critically consider collaborate with estates to utilise idle land for maize production.

Previously, there was maximum utilisation of press agriculture estates to grow maize, which was also meant for the strategic grain reserves. The country could hardly run out of maize in the silos and maize was found in every ADMARC depots.

The Centre has also urged government to contract private companies like Illovo Sugar Company to use part of their estate to grow maize under irrigation farming.

"We further urge members of Parliament to debate and pass the Right to Food bill in the National Assembly. This is a very important bill, which, when passed in parliament and assented into law, will help Malawians to claim their right to food," Hara emphasised.

Over the recent past, government has been distributing relief food to hunger-stricken families in selected districts in the country.

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