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The race to defeat poverty

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Alabi Onenji from Dedza District admits living under poor conditions, a development that has seen him qualifying for the Social Cash Transfer programme.

Born in January 1973, Onenji is a subsistence farmer. He hardly harvests enough to take his family to the next season. He is married with eight children.

“I grow maize for food and small quantities of Irish potatoes for sale,” Onenji said at his village in the area of Traditional Authority Kasumbu. “I have about one and a half acres of land and my yield is usually low.”

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Dedza is one of the district councils piloting phase four of the Malawi Social Action Fund, through which safety net initiatives such as community-driven public works programme and social cash transfer to the elderly and vulnerable people are carried out.

With assistance from the World Bank, the government of Malawi has been giving out tens of millions of Kwacha to vulnerable people to cushion them from adverse effects of poverty.

Onenji started receiving the “free” money in December 2016. By April 2017, he had received K120, 200. Much of the money was spent on food.

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“I received K18, 600 at first and later got K24, 000,” Onenji said, adding that the biggest investment he made was to buy two bags of fertilizer at K41,000 for his maize field, hoping that he would realise a bumper harvest and sell the surplus.

This never came to pass.

At the time of buying the fertilizer, a 50 kilogramme bag of maize was selling at K12, 000. The price nose-dived to around K3, 000 after the harvest. Like other farmers, Onenji’s hopes of making a killing from the maize were shattered.

“Unless the government continues with the assistance, our situation will not get any better.”

Onenji is not the only person in this situation. Many people who tried their hand at farming, hoping that prices on the market would be rewarding, are disappointed.

At a smallholder farmers’ symposium Food and Agriculture Organisation (Fao) of the United Nations sponsored a t Lisasadzi Residential Training Centre in Kasungu in June this year, farmers lamented that they had invested a lot of time and resources in producing crops such as maize, soya and sunflower. But buyers were getting the produce for a song.

“We are surprised that the government is aware of the low prices buyers are offering us, yet it is not doing anything to help us recover our investment,” said one of the participants, adding that this would perpetuate poverty in the country.

Fao representative, Florence Rolle, empathised with the farmers.

She, however, advised them to work together, through cooperatives, to ensure collective marketing and avoid putting “all your eggs in one basket”.

Beside crops, she suggested, the smallholder farmers should also consider keeping livestock.

Malawi, which celebrated her 53rd independence anniversary in July, has a majority of her people trapped in the quagmire of poverty. And safety nets such as social cash transfers may never plug people such as Alabi out of their impecuniousness.

Critical social commentators argue that people need education on financial literacy. They need to be taught how to create and preserve worth, instead of waiting for freebies.

The government also needs to make bold policy decisions to ensure couples, particularly the ultra poor, have a limited number of children.

“Malawi has a very young and rapidly growing population, which is a key factor of Malawi’s persistent poverty,” reads part of a 2006 document titled ‘Malawi Poverty and Vulnerability Assessment’ released jointly by the government of Malawi and the World Bank.

It says that poor households in the country are generally larger than non-poor households. When looking at an average household size by income, households in the poorest bracket are usually four times larger than households in the richest bracket.

“The larger household size reflects the higher number of dependents i n poorer households, which is largely driven by the higher number of children in the household,” it says.

Truly, well off families are very small. They also have passive income to supplement the monthly earnings.

“Only about one-third of the households in Malawi have household enterprises,” the document observes.

Sadly, the poor do not want to learn from the rich. Actually, some people know that the government will “reward them for that”, according to the report.

As politicians are gearing up for the May 2019 tripartite elections, poverty alleviation will surely be a catchword in their campaign messages. But the more they despise poverty, the more Jesus’ words in John 12 verse 8 [that the poor will always be amongst us] remain true.

Surely, unless people such as Onenji are taught how to fish independently, they will forever look up to government for fish.

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