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Developing Viable Food Systems in Malawi

Food and nutrition, safety, dietary diversity as well as adequate hygiene and sanitation practices are central to maternal and child health. Malawi’s Vulnerability to weather shocks; poor management of land, water and soils; low adoption of agricultural technologies; low access to finance and farm inputs; low mechanization and technical labor skills; a limited irrigation system and weak linkages to markets are some of the challenges the sector faces. The country’s population is expected to rise to 40 million in 2040, a rapid population increase that puts a serious strain on agricultural resources that are important for health and nutrition as well as family income.

Malawi has been facing an unprecedented food crisis for due to a drought in recent years, which has made a large portion of the country’s population vulnerable to food insecurity. Malawi’s many smallholders rely heavily on rainfed, low-input subsistence farming to meet their food needs. Yet for most rural Malawian households, subsistence agriculture cannot consistently produce enough food to ward off hunger. Nor can they rely on the country’s weak markets to buy additional food they may require or to profitably sell their agricultural products throughout the year. Official statistics indicate an estimated 36.7 percent of rural Malawian house­holds failed to access sufficient calories between 2010 and 2011. During the same period, 47 percent of children under the age of five years were esti­mated to be stunted in their growth. These indicators imply that some Malawian diets are lacking in terms of quantity (total calories consumed), and most are lacking in terms of quality (sufficient calories derived from nutrient-dense foods, such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes, fruits, and vegetables). Good nutrition requires both enough total calories (quantity) and enough vitamins and minerals per calorie (quality).

Over the last ten years, food insecurity, connected to erratic rains and reduced agricultural outputs, has plagued Malawi. Many households are turning to fishing to seek additional sources of income and food. Poor households with uneducated male heads with a high number of dependents, few income sources were most likely to experience food insecurity. These people require urgent action to prevent significant food consumption gaps and use of negative livelihood coping strategies. In the period November 2019 to March 2020, almost 1.9 million people in Malawi are in food crisis. The IHS5 found that 70% of rural households and 45% of urban households reported that they did not have sufficient food. The Constitution of Malawi recognises that access to and utilisation of nutritionally adequate and safe food in the right quantities is a right of each individual. The right to food protects the right of all human beings to be free from hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition. Strong, democratic leadership and sound policies are essential for ensuring food security. In this country, the agricultural sector is dominated by smallholder farming and rain-fed food production systems that are facing increasing challenges from land degradation and declining soil fertility.

Between January and March 2021 two million of the total 2.64 million people facing high acute food insecurity are in the rural areas of Malawi, while 610,000 are in the country’s four largest cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mzuzu and Zomba. Some parts of Rumphi and Karonga districts in northern Malawi had experienced flooding and waterlogging that had damaged crops. In the south, the Nsanje and Chikwawa districts, as well as parts of Phalombe, Balaka, Mwanza, Neno, Zomba, and Chiradzulu districts, had experienced localised dry spells and early cessation of rainfall. This had resulted in localised below-average production.

The main harvest of the 2020/21 agricultural season began in April 2021 and is expected to last through June. Typically, southern areas start harvesting earliest, in April, while northern areas start harvesting in May. Most districts in the southern and central regions have now started harvesting their crop, improving household access to maize. In northern areas, harvesting activities have not started in earnest, though households have access to green harvests.

Agricultural trade, government safety net programs, and foreign assistance will no doubt continue to play an important role in the quest for food security in Malawi and other “hotspot” countries in the future. And climate change adaptation projects will, hopefully, reshape agricultural practices and technologies in ways that can boost yields and enable crops to better withstand temperature and precipitation fluctuations. These interventions will be critical in addressing the supply side of future food security challenges.

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However, Malawi’s food and nutrition security situation are complex and achieving food security is high on the agenda of the Malawi government. To help vulnerable households produce enough food to meet their children’s nutrition needs, private sector stakeholders should partner with the government of Malawi in order to improve families’ access to food and resilience in the face of emergencies through the mobilization of communities.

1. Fiscal Growth and Food Safety

Malawi government should support pro-poor, more inclusive economic growth through initiatives targeting the poorest, who are most likely to be women living on the smallest plots of land, engaging in subsistence farming; female headed households supporting persons living with HIV and AIDS or disabilities, as well as all workers in poorly remunerated and unregulated sectors.

2. Food Safety

To increase food safety, the government should increase support in particular for rural household, agricultural productivity, especially those headed by women and youth, building capacity in irrigation, diversification of agricultural production, adaptive research initiatives, agronomic best practices, market linkages, and access to finance. An agroforestry programme that promotes tree planting to increase crop yields in previously depleted soils, reverse deforestation, and empower women should be put in place by the government. The Malawi government should also support the Agriculture Sector Wide Approach (ASWAp) through promoting diversification of food production for improved nutrition with a focus on crops, livestock and fisheries.

3. Employment

The government should provide technical assistance and capacity enhancement across a range of initiatives, ensuring that social-economically disadvantaged groups, particularly in rural areas – women, youth, and people with disabilities engage in gainful decent employment activities and benefit from income generation and employment arising from private sector growth. The government of Malawi should develop a National Employment Policy and establish a National Labour Market Information System benefiting government, employers and workers’ organisations. Particular attention is paid to agriculture and informal employment in rural areas taking into account wage inequalities between women and men. It is also important to ensure that the National Labour Market Information System reaches rural areas.

4. Private Sector Expansion

The government of Malawi should leverage the private sector as the engine for economic growth. Support is given to private sector-led and inclusive market development in the country as a means to contribute to poverty reduction. They should also pilots key private sector ventures promoting export of Malawian products to international markets in support of enhanced incomes and growing decent employment amongst emerging entrepreneurs and smallholders, many of them women. Youth and people with disabilities receive assistance to access enterprise and vocational training, and micro-financing facilities.

5. Environment, Natural Resources and Climate Conversion

In the context of rapid and debilitating climate change, the promotion of natural resources conservation and improved management of the environment and disasters enhances the sustainability of economic growth, particularly in districts that are prone to natural disaster.

Through government assistance and capacity development, climate change, environment and natural resources, and disaster risk-reduction coordination mechanisms and implementation arrangements will be built at national level, and in all disaster-prone districts.

Malawi government should support National institutions in collecting and disseminating data and analysis on climate change, environmental degradation and natural disaster amongst decision makers in Government, Private Sector and Civil Society. Aiming at the development of a national programme on sustainable energy, the Malawi government supports piloting and upscaling of alternative innovative renewable energy technologies to biomass energy use of the poor in rural and peri-urban areas.

6. Social Care and Disaster Risk Control

Social security has become more relevant in Malawi in response to the onset of the global financial crisis, and rising food and fuel prices. Recognising participation of the ultra poor and other vulnerable groups in disaster risk management is key, the government actions that assist those groups to meet their basic needs and withstand external shocks.

The programme should also provides multi-sector coordination and information management systems and capacity support at all levels for the implementation and monitoring of the social protection programme. Multi-sector emergency preparedness, planning, and response capacity is to be developed at national, district and community level, reducing negative social and economic impact.

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