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Salvation through small farmers

In its report of 1924, the Phelps Stokes Commission on education in eastern Africa described Nyasas (Malawians) as having abilities above average. Since that time, I have not learned that Malawians are the laziest and dullest Africans.

Why then are we the poorest? President Bingu wa Mutharika used to say Malawi is not poor but Malawians are. He was saying in different words what the Phelps Stokes Commission had said in 1924.

It is a time to engage in national soul-searching and ask ourselves what are the errors and omissions we have made that have brought us so low on the ladder of economic and social progress.

“When I hear that something I want done in Singapore is already being done somewhere, I send one of my experts there to go and study it.”

These were approximately the words of the late Lee Kuan Yew, first prime minister of Singapore. Is this what our presidents have been doing since Malawi gained independence in 1964?

At Jacranda Cultural Centre on September 16 2017, a European lady approached me with ideas on how output in agriculture in Malawi could improve by discarding some of the techniques extension officers are imparting to small farmers throughout the country. I was surprised to hear this. A month later, she came to my office in the Trade Fair Grounds, Blantyre with a set of magazines and f lagged articles. The first article I read has motivated me to write on the need for a workable agricultural and land policy in Malawi.

Malawi’s density of population is one of the highest in Africa though perhaps not higher than that of Rwanda; the little country where economic miracles are taking place if I may say so. How do we increase agricultural production where there is land shortage? Two or three years ago, members of Economics Association of Malawi met at a resort by the lakeshore and with their paying guests resolved that for agriculture output to increase and Malawi to enjoy perpetual food self-sufficiency, land should be taken away from those who do not make proper use of it and headed to commercial farmers. The resolution was to this effect though not necessarily in these words.

The pundits apparently had lost faith in the potentials of small farmers. The article which I read in the magazines Mrs B brought me, Resurgence & Ecologist, is dated March/ April 2014 and is titled “Small is the New Big” by Vandana Shiva of India, whose message is that the small farmer on the basis of experience in India and Kenya is more productive than the big farmer. We say the solution to our agricultural problems are big farmer s , big dams and big corporation but Shiva says small is big ecologically, economically and politically.

“That is why in India while sowing over seeds, we pray: ‘May this seed be exhaustless’,” says Shiva: “Whereas the motto of the big corporation is may this seed get exhausted so that our profits are exhaustless.”

In Malawi, the interest of the smallholder farmers and the poorly paid consumer tend to be at cross purpose. When there is shortage of maize, prizes of bales in urban areas shoot up. It is the time the farmer makes a tidy profit and is happy but the consumer in the urban centre grumble because they are not able to buy enough and that which they buy deprives them of al l their monthly pay.

During the year of the bumper harvest, markets and shops are flooded with affordable bales of maize. The buyer or the consumer is to get so much at so little cost. But the farmer cries foul. They sell the maize at give-away prices below the unit cost of production and suffer heavy losses.

The problem then in Malawi is how the farmer can produce the bumper harvest at cost low enough to make a profit when they fix the price that is affordable to the ordinary urban dwellers.

Shiva seems to point out the way for the cul de sac. He says “small biodiverse forms produce more than large farms as we have found on our Navdanya farms. Thus, if crowded capital scarce country like India has choice between a single 100-acre farm and 40 2.5-acre farms, the capital cost to the national economy will be less if the country chooses the smaller farms.

Malawi is a country of small farmers. Evicting small farmers off their land and handing it to the big capitalist commercial farmers has been suggested but the human suffering this would entail makes such a suggestion look cruel and exploitative.

A report of United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, according to Shiva, asserted that farming in rich and poor nations a like should shift from monoculture towards greater variety of crops, reduced use of fertilisers and other inputs, greater support for small-scale farmers and more locally focused production and consumption of food.

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