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Starving in the midst of plenty

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With her two year old baby strapped on her back, Falesi Chibwezo defies the scorching mid-October heat, walking for about 10 kilometres to the Chilobwe Admarc depot, in the outskirts of Blantyre city in pursuit of the staple, maize. With her partly torn 50 kilogrammes empty sack kept firmly under her armpits, Chibwezo hopes to buy 45 kilogrammes of the staple commodity to feed her six member family for the next three or so weeks.

Despite the tireless scramble, surprisingly authorities at the depot tell her that she could acquire not more than 20 kilogrammes of the staple commodity as Admarc started rationing sale of maize at its markets weeks ago.

“This is very unfair,” she tells me in an interview, looking perplexed and hopeless. She continues that “regardless of the distance I have travelled from home, the size of my family and the fact that I have money that I could buy more, why giving a limit? Why should I starve?”

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Chibwezo’s impression of the status quo is that the food situation is out of hand, despite assurances of availability of maize across the country by authorities.

“It feels the situation is out of hand and the rationing is just a control measure by Admarc,” she says, “this does not consider the poor with large families like me, who only bank on the government grain trader for food”.

Probably, Chibwezo shares her concerns with about 2.8 million other Malawians at risk of hunger following a drop in agricultural output last growing season.

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Recently, President Peter Mutharika told journalists the country now needs over K83 billion for emergency food response to help the victims. While giving hope that “no one will die of hunger this year,” Mutharika conceded that maize production has dropped by 27.7 percent due to combined effects of drought and floods in some part of the country.

In an interview, Admarc Chief Executive Officer Foster Mulumbe, however, said Admarc has enough stock of the grain at its main depots across the country and that the company is still monitoring market trends amid speculation of scarcity of the staple food.

“The rationing does not mean we do not have adequate stocks, we do have adequate maize to run to the next season. By restricting the purchase quantity to a maximum of 20 kilogrammes per person, we are actually trying to make life difficult for some traders who would want to buy maize from our reserves for their gain,” said Mulumbe.

He further said upon stabilisation of the market trends, Admarc will increase the minimum amount of maize one would buy at its markets.

Said Mulumbe that, “should the situation improve, we are ready to review the ration limit because the purpose is to control the movement of maize from Admarc into the wrong hands. Our maize is meant for consumption and not for trading.”

Statistics sourced from the Corporation indicates that locally, Admarc bought over 25,000 metric tonnes of maize and imported 30,000 tones which it is now trading.

On the other side, figures from the grain reservoir, the National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA) indicate that by end last month, the country had in stock of over 46,550 metric tonnes at its National Strategic Grain Reserves.

According to NFRA Chief Executive Officer, Nasinuku Saukira, the country has enough to fend for its people in the long term and there is no cause for panic.

“Bear in mind that we are procuring to keep us afloat. If you recall, some weeks ago we said we had 36,000 metric tonnes, now we are talking of that figure, which means we are growing. The growth is due to what we are buying,” he says.

Recently, the country’s social monitoring body Center for Social Concern (CfSC) emphasised on the need for government to increase supply of the commodity on the market as a means towards reducing the commodity’s scarcity and minimize the prevailing food shortage speculation.

According to CfSC’s Economic Governance and Justice Programme Officer Mathias Kafunda, the situation is creating an impression that the commodity is scarce.

“Flooding all selling points across the country with maize would be ideal to caution scarcity of the commodity in instances private traders might hold their maize for further hiking of the price,” he said.

Through the CfSC monthly data analysis report on Basic Need Basket released in September, on average, a 50 kilogrammes bag of maize on the parallel market was being sold at K 6,300, K8, 000, K7, 583, K6, 300, K5,750 and K8, 000 in Lilongwe, Zomba, Blantyre, Mzuzu, Karonga and Mangochi respectively.

With authorities bragging of plenty available maize in stock, the situation really puts Chibwezo and the other 2.8 million Malawians earmarked for food assistance this year at an awkward position to really appreciate the fact that Malawihas enough stocks. To them, they may conclude that they are starving amidst plenty.

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