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The politics of maize as food and survival of the fittest in Malawi

Hunger not the absence of food but the politics of maize

Photo of Patrick Mapulanga
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

I am linked to Kamuzu College of Nursing, a constituent college of the University of Malawi. The college trans state registered nurses.

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

No partnerships.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.kcn.unima.mw

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Lilongwe. Malawi

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

Malawi

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Lilongwe is the most populated city of the African state of Malawi. It has a population of 989,318 as of the 2018 Census and 727 square km

What country is your selected Place located in?

Lilongwe is in Malawi

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Lilongwe is located in the central region of Malawi and its headquarters is based in Lilongwe District. It has two Rural Development Projects (RDP) namely, Lilongwe West and Lilongwe East in Lilongwe District. Lilongwe district has 19 Extension Planning Areas. Lilongwe West occupies 375,629 hectares of land while Lilongwe East has 211,317 hectares. The total cultivatable land area for the Lilongwe West is 200,041 hectares while Lilongwe East it is 132,620 hectares. In the 2015/2016 growing season, out of 269, 554 households in Lilongwe West, 90, 064 household representing 33% had no food enough to feed themselves the whole year round. Similarly, out of 178, 216 households in Lilongwe East, 45, 275 representing 25% had no food, yet Lilongwe is an agricultural district. The food scarcity in Lilongwe is because of the politics of maize. Malawi has been pursuing a policy aiming towards national food self-sufficiency for decades. In the past, the estate sector was afforded the privilege of earning foreign exchange for the country by exporting cash crops such as tobacco and tea, while the smallholder sector was relegated to subsistence farming.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Maize is the most important food crop in Malawi. It is commonly grown throughout the country, especially by smallholder farmers. This cereal is the staple food and major source of carbohydrates for over 80% of the Malawian population. Approximately 70% of the cultivated area of customary land is planted to maize each year. About 1,190,000 hectares of maize are planted by smallholder farmers every year, with a grain production of 1,290,000 tonnes. An additional 10% {approximately 130,000 tonnes) is produced by the estate sector. People in Malawi eat local foods more than they eat processed foods. Traditional Malawian food is made following easy Malawi recipes. Malawi food recipes are taught are mostly learn verbally or by observation. Easy Malawi recipes do not require complicates measuring utensils like kitchen scales. Instead people rely on approximate measurements using hands and cups. The most popular food in Malawi is nsima. Nsima is served with relish in main dishes. Malawi culture encourages families to prepare meals for visitors as a sign of sharing love. Mostly Malawians serve visitors with nsima and chicken. Nsima is made up of maize or cassava flour and water. Water is boiled and mixed with the flour. A cooking stick is used to thoroughly mix water and flour until a thick paste is formed. The thick porridge like food is know as nsima. It is commonly served during launch and supper. Nsima is the main source of carbohydrates for Malawians. Babies eat soft porridge made from the same maize flour. Relish especially fish is the common source of proteins in most Malawian diets. Breakfast is commonly tea served with cassava, Irish potatoes, rice or bread. Lake Malawi is the largest source of fishes. Chambo fish and small fishes known as usipa are readily available in markets in towns and cities. Maize is the staple food in Malawi. About 80% of the population in the country depends on maize as the source of food. Rice is another source of carbohydrates for people in Malawi. Rice is commonly served in homes on Christmas. Malawi food crisis happens when there is inadequate maize in the country. Bad weather and floods causes food shortages in some years. Most people grow maize on small-scale basis. In order to make sure the people have enough maize the government provides subsidized farm materials like fertilizers and seeds. However, smallholder farmers are locked into a low productivity maize production trap, leading to low incomes and inability to afford inputs at commercial prices.

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

In Malawi maize is grown over a wide range of climatic conditions such as altitudes, temperature, rainfall and soil types. It is grown from under 100 m to over 1,700 m above sea level. The Malawian diet is mainly composed of cereals, primarily maize, starchy roots (cassava and potatoes) and starchy fruit (plantain). Although Malawi is endowed with diverse agro-climatic zones and with plentiful fresh water, land is becoming severely degraded due to increasing population pressure and agricultural intensification. The reliance on rain fed cultivation coupled with the potential effects of climate change presents vital challenges to the sustainability and resilience of the sector. Other major challenges include: fuel shortages, declining foreign exchange earnings, declining investments, lack of direct access to sea ports, and high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates. Conditions for growing maize in Malawi are characterized by changing climate and high pressure on land. Farming is still influenced by agrarian policies from colonial and post-colonial times, in which a small elite of farmers are favored with access to credit and markets. Current agrarian policies focus on the national subsidy program, where farming inputs are distributed. After early breeding efforts in maize from national research, various commercial seed producers took over and focus on the production of hybrid maize seed. Markets for fertilizer and farm produce are variable and highly fluctuating within and between years. Access to credit and formal markets for produce differs considerably between social classes in the community. On a village level spatial distribution of the village and surrounding institutions play a role for farmers in daily activities. In the past years land tenure has shifted from matrilineal to patrilineal, which favored men in entitlements to land. Labor exchange is mostly organized in a form of piecework, and employment as tobacco tenants. In collaboration with the Malawi Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, extension program exist to promote two technologies: pit planting, a more productive way to plant maize, and better crop residue management (CRM), which emphasizes retaining residue to improve soil quality. Intensification has occurred in maize production due to rising use of fertilizer, and, more recently, increasing adoption of high-yielding varieties at the national level. If the overriding issues of the institutional setting for maize research and the diffusion of new technologies, as well as the pressing concern for declining soil fertility, can be adequately addressed, recent encouraging changes in farmers' fields may translate into the sort of aggregate yield impacts generally associated with green revolutions. Further, because the technology is particularly attractive to some of the smallest farmers in the world, those impacts may have novel distributional implications.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

The emphasis of this policy is commercialization as one way of promoting sustained growth in the agriculture sector. The policy will facilitate transition of farming communities from subsistence production to non-traditional high-value agricultural value chains that would ultimately result in wealth creation. First is transform our agriculture and diversity crop production. These included: sustainable agricultural production and productivity; sustainable irrigation development; mechanization of agriculture; agricultural market development, agro-processing and value addition. With these its is hoped that Malawi can have improved management of agricultural resources, increased agricultural exports and incomes, and improved food and nutrition security. Secondly, Malawi needs to empower the youth, women and vulnerable groups in agriculture; and institutional development, coordination and capacity strengthening. For Malawi to realize its goal of crop production and productivity, the quality of seed is an important factor. The new policy needs to take into account the massive transformation in the seed sector which has seen numerous players coming into the seed industry. The new seed policy needs to provide for the regulation and control of all seed issues, protects consumers and dealers and also promotes a responsible and productive seed industry. The new seed policy should ensure the availability of adequate high quality seed and planting materials to the farming community. Challenges in the seed industry in the areas of research, production and quality control, imports and exports, marketing, distribution should all be examined. The policy should also address the need to build strategic seed reserves. Maize is the major grain that constitutes food security in Malawi. To cushion the country against maize production deficits, government established the strategic grain reserve overseen by the National Food Reserve Agency. Overtime, a number of emerging issues have necessitated the review of guidelines to address gaps in the current system and improve management of the Strategic Grain Reserves. Malawi needs guidelines that require enhancing the country’s early warning system for better preparedness, early release of funds to procure grain during the harvesting period. Issues of grain storage, quality control, and recycling of stock should be properly examined periodically.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Malawi needs to identify innovative and profitable alternative crop and livelihood options for farmers by partnering with agronomy research institutes to determine which crops and livelihoods are best suited for Malawi, considering production, value chain, commercialization, and policy potential. Malawi needs to develop and apply new technologies to enhance agricultural productivity, build resilience, and increase income generation for farmers, primarily driven through the establishment of a science and technology. This is critical in assessing and verifying new technologies that can come into Malawi's agriculture sector. Early areas of need identified are seed testing, tissue cultures and lab facilities, soil testing, and land allocation/mapping. Malawi needs to facilitate commercialization. Facilitate the creation and application of new markets and sustainable business models to improve economic opportunity and generate income for rural communities, as well as to strengthen the economy more broadly. A core strategy is to strengthen and support alternate agricultural value chains. This activity can take place through multiple methods, including deep collaboration and local policy analysis with identified partners; conferences, seminars, and capacity-building sessions on a range of issues including but not limited to Special Economic Zones; economic diversification strategies across sectors including tobacco; platforms for testing new technologies; facilitation of investment capital and business case development; facilitation of off-take agreements; and creation of an inclusive supply chain based on an integrated smallholder/commercial model. Malawi need to strengthen policy by creating an enabling environment for new livelihood and business strategies through targeted policy and resilience-building action. Underlying most of the priority areas of investment are policy analysis and government capacity building.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

The Malawian diet is mainly composed of cereals, primarily maize, starchy roots (cassava and potatoes) and starchy fruit (plantain). This approach seeks to diversify crop production beyond maize as a staple food for the next 30 years all so. Although Malawi is endowed with diverse agro-climatic zones and with plentiful fresh water, land is becoming severely degraded due to increasing population pressure and agricultural intensification. The reliance on rain fed cultivation coupled with the potential effects of climate change presents vital challenges to the sustainability and resilience of the sector. This approach seeks to encourage irrigation and ensure that farmers are supported as long as they do farming as a business and on a large scale. Conditions for growing maize in Malawi are characterized by changing climate and high pressure on land. Farming is still influenced by agrarian policies from colonial and post-colonial times, in which a small elite of farmers are favored with access to credit and markets. This approach seeks to suggest that the current agrarian policies should focus on the national subsidy program, where farming inputs are distributed. Markets for fertilizer and farm produce should be contained. Access to credit and formal markets for produce should be contained between social classes in the community. Labor exchange mostly organized in a form of piecework, and employment should be changed into farm mechanisation. Extension program should exist to promote advanced technologies: pit planting, a more productive way to plant maize, and better crop residue management with emphasis in retaining residue to improve soil quality. Intensification has occurred in maize production due to rising use of fertilizer, and, more recently, increasing adoption of high-yielding varieties at the national level. If the overriding issues of the institutional setting for maize research and the diffusion of new technologies, as well as the pressing concern for declining soil fertility, can be adequately addressed, recent encouraging changes in farmers' fields may translate into the sort of aggregate yield impacts generally associated with green revolutions. Further, because the technology is particularly attractive to some of the smallest farmers in the world, those impacts may have novel distributional implications.

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