Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Food Insecurity in Malawi

by Isobel Coleman
August 16, 2012

A Malawian woman tends dry fields in Thyolo district, some 70 km (44 miles) from the commercial capital Blantyre on October 6, 2005 (Courtesy Reuters). A Malawian woman tends dry fields in Thyolo district, some 70 km (44 miles) from the commercial capital Blantyre on October 6, 2005 (Courtesy Reuters).


This summer has been a difficult season for global agriculture. Despite some much-needed rain in the American Midwest, drought continues to affect wide areas of the United States. This week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declared that the U.S. government would buy $170 million of animal products, such as pork and lamb, from farmers who are strained by high prices for animal feed.

As I’ve written previously, drought in the U.S. is raising food prices around the world, a situation that could lead to domestic unrest for countries that rely on food imports. Additionally, weather conditions in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine—important wheat exporters—are exacerbating food prices. Meanwhile, India, home to 600 million people who work in agriculture, is experiencing drought in some areas and growing concerns about decreased yields and the health of livestock.

The high-poverty nation of Malawi is one country particularly sensitive to today’s rising food prices and adverse weather. Last year, 200,000 Malawians needed food aid, but in early 2013, when the so-called lean season will be at its worst, an estimated 1.6 million people may require it. Malawi’s population is just 13 million.

The causes of food insecurity in Malawi are multifaceted. According to the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), currency devaluation and high inflation levels have “push[ed] the cost of living to unsustainable levels for many Malawians. Food prices have been particularly affected by high transport costs due to increases in the price of fuel.” The WFP also reports that Malawi this year is suffering from its own adverse weather conditions (late rains and dry spells), which threaten its maize crops.

In the short term, Malawi will need outside assistance to combat food insecurity. Although recently deceased President Bingu wa Mutharika undermined Malawi’s relationship with the donor community, new president Joyce Banda understands the importance of these partnerships to Malawi’s economy and stability. The World Food Program is asking for $48 million to mitigate food insecurity in Malawi; so far, the United Kingdom’ has committed $4.7 million.

Banda has big dreams for improving the lives of Malawians, but she will not be able to achieve these in the face of widespread food insecurity. However, experience shows that agricultural interventions can make, and have made, a difference in Malawi. Despite his governance failures, President Bingu wa Mutharika improved Malawi’s agricultural prospects (the country experienced severe food shortages in 2005, as the picture above highlights). Economist Jeffrey Sachs (among others) has praised former President Mutharika for a fertilizer subsidy program that increased crop yields and benefited smallholder farmers; as Sachs asserts, “Malawi began to produce enough grain for itself year after year, and even became a food donor when famine struck the region.”

Nevertheless, the fertilizer intervention is partly dependent on adequate rainfall;  good rains during Mutharika’s time in office arguably played an important part in the program’s success. As Malawi’s current food insecurity shows, fertilizer is not a silver bullet solution. Additional solutions include increased and effective irrigation, which could make a difference in Malawi particularly in times of drought. As I recently wrote, other parts of Africa stand to benefit from more widespread irrigation as well.

Joyce Banda seems deeply committed to tackling Malawi’s food insecurity issues. In her State of the Union Address in May, Banda pledged to figure out ways to make the fertilizer program more economically efficient, to support technological and agricultural innovation, and more. She shared her goal that “Government is determined to eliminate all forms of malnutrition and to ensure that no child in Malawi dies of malnutrition.” Unfortunately, with drought and other factors driving higher global food prices, achieving her laudable goal is only getting harder.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Mike Hill

    Your article is accurately reported except for the picture which is of a woman doing work to improve a dirt road to prevent washouts during the raining season. Usually they get food vouchers for this work. She is not in her field which would show, of course, raised narrow rows of dirt into which her seeds, mostly maize, is planted.

  • Posted by Colette

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