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Time to break cycle of Malawi’s food insecurity

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BY VIRGINIA PALMER & MARCHEL GERRMANN

The Government of Malawi with humanitarian assistance from the United States, European Union, its member states and other development partners just concluded a programme to keep 2.8 million Malawians from hunger with over K600 billion in humanitarian assistance. It is already clear that next year will be worse, involving more people at higher cost. This is not sustainable in particular given the fast-growing population. 30 million Malawians will have to be food and nutrition secure by 2030.

Recent signals from the government to reform the agriculture sector are therefore encouraging. We commend government for taking some initial steps with the drafting of a National Agriculture Policy and reforming Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp). But today’s crisis demonstrates why bolder actions are needed if Malawi is to break the cycle of food insecurity.

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In our view, Malawi needs a holistic approach, involving irrigation, access to credit, agriculture extension, research and market reforms. This could make the agriculture sector an engine for economic growth. The goal of a new wave of reforms must be to increase agricultural production and make the sector more attractive to private investment. In addition, food production must be resilient to climate related shocks such as erratic rains and floods.

We believe that fulfilling the government’s commitments to the African Union under the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is crucial to improve the enabling environment for private sector investment. Those include:

  • Amendments to the Land Act to ensure security of tenure;
  • Finalisation of a National Agricultural Policy
  • Finalisation of a Fertiliser Policy and tabling a new Fertiliser Bill in Parliament;
  • Making the draft Seed Act consistent with the SADC Seed Harmonisation Agreement;
  • Reviewing the taxation regime for agriculture and agro-processing related activities;
  • Revision of the Control of Goods Act so that farmers will be incentivised to plant staple crops like maize and soya.

The government’s pilot to involve the private sector in Fisp was an important step in the right direction. Utilising the private sector to import and distribute fertiliser and seeds proved effective and efficient. Now it’s time to expand those reforms and be more strategic. Increasing significantly the role of the private sector in Fisp will further reduce costs. Targeting farmers who are best positioned to produce a marketable surplus will ensure higher food production. Making resources available earlier to buy fertiliser and seeds in time to distribute to farmers before planting season is fundamental to success.

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But FISP alone is not, and cannot be, the only answer. Part of the cost and labor savings from a smaller, more targeted, and more efficient Fisp could be invested in irrigation, agricultural extension and research — areas that have proven to generate long-term growth elsewhere. Government can then support the most vulnerable by developing and implementing a new National Resilience Strategy.

The role of Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (Admarc) is crucial. Encouragingly, Admarc is signaling a willingness to help facilitate Malawi’s transition to food security. Stronger coordination with donors and UN Agencies on the next food aid response will make both Government and donors’ response more effective. A reformed Admarc will also generate savings for government, while providing a fair price to farmers for their produce. Completing performance and financial audits of Admarc and making those publicly available will increase public confidence.

In conclusion, the current cycle of increased food insecurity is not sustainable and must be broken. Only a comprehensive approach can achieve the necessary transformation of the agricultural sector. We call on government to implement the needed reforms; west and ready to assist.

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