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When common sense takes agriculture nowhere

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Hunger, like a mysterious animal, looms over Malawi’s 2015/16 farming season. El Nino is the name of the animal.

El Nino, according to Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services principal meteorologist and spokesperson, Elina Kululanga, is a phenomenon which is caused by unusual warming of waters over the Eastern Central Equatorial Pacific Ocean, a development that leads to depressed rainfall. When temperatures are lower than average, the condition is called La Nina.

Rainfall affairs have always been an unpredictable business in the country. When the rains fall in droves, they often open the floodgates of disaster. When they fall short of expected amounts, they reduce farmers’ hopes of a bumper yield to ashes.

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Elderly Peoples Association of Malawi chairperson, Helen Chasowa, said the elderly bear the brunt of these challenges and are often the last group to receive food rations in cases of aid. This, she observed, is not isolated to disaster situations. The elderly are often overlooked in initiatives such as the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp).

“In our set up, the elderly are generally neglected. You know that in times of disaster, everyone wants to prioritise their needs, which translates in the elderly being neglected in terms of material and food needs. We need proper policies,” said Chasowa.

Unfortunately for the elderly, and other vulnerable groups, they have no pillow to lean on in times of disaster due to lack of an enabling legal framework.

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No wonder that, in other districts such as Mangochi, issues pertaining to the right to food sometimes spill into anger. In November 2013, for instance, concerned Muslims in Mangochi carried placards that read “Say No to Haram Foods in Mangochi, The Islamic State” in yet another indication that food is a sensitive and political issue in the country. The Haram food in question was pork.

One of the prominent sheikhs in Malawi, Sheikh Dinala Chabulika, condemned the development, saying: “Malawi is a secular state where we have people with different religious ideologies. We, therefore, need to on coexist.”

However, the Mangochi residents, both those who hate pork and those who like it, can only rely on the good will of the other party due to lack of laws guaranteeing the right to food.

Unfortunately, the Mangochi scenario applies to other districts, too. For instance, Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (Cadecom) programmes coordinator in the Diocese of Zomba, Josephine Magombo, observed that Cadecom had challenges distributing pigs as part of a project aimed at building resilience to climate change among Traditional Authority Nkula’s subjects in Machinga.

The project, titled ‘Increased Food Security and Resilience to Climate Shocks of 1, 250 Households in Malawi’, targeted female-headed, male-headed and child-headed households.

“For example, we had challenges due to floods, which affected our [livestock] pass-on programme. The second challenge was language barrier while the third challenge hinged on the fact that we had a component of nkhumba [pig] distribution among the people who are largely Muslim,” said Magombo.

Yusuf Mkungula, Cadecom national programmes officer, observed that, in a situation where legal frameworks are non-existent, only common sense rules.

“Normally, when it comes to issues pertaining to the right to food in Malawi, the majority rules. If we have people who don’t eat pork and other tribes, the mature thing to do is to look at the cultural aspect. In this case, even if the minority would like to have, say, pigs, they [minority] stand to lose out because there is potential for conflict.

“Of course, to some extent, the right to food of such people [minority groups] may be violated but the issue of culture in food security is very important, especially on issues of livestock,” said Mkungula.

Temporary measure

In the absence of laws regulating the right to food, even the government can do no more than operate on trial-and-error basis.

In the past, it has relied heavily on foreign aid during food crises. This year, the current administration has taken the same path.

Vice-President Saulos Chilima said last week that the government has, so far, solicited US$91 million as part of the international community’s response to the country’s hunger situation.

Chilima said the country has raised US$91 million, thanks to the United Kingdom, Save the Children, Botswana, the United States of America, Ireland, Brazil, the European Union, Norway, Egypt, the United Nations’ Central Emergency Response Fund and World Food Programme.

Out of the blues, however, the government has also pleasantly surprised Malawians by setting aside K1 billion in preparation for the looming El Nino.

Chilima said the government had procured a drought insurance policy from the African Risk Capacity Insurance Company Limited for the 2015/2016 farming season.

“With this insurance policy, the exact amount of the pay-out to which the country would be eligible would be up to a maximum of US$30 million, depending on the extent of the drought,” Chilima said, further disclosing that the government paid K2.9 billion premium during the first week of December.”

Meanwhile, perhaps buoyed by the fact that any loses incurred in the 2015/16 farming season may be offset by the insurance policy, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Water Development has continued with its Farm Input Subsidy Programme.

Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development minister, Allan Chiyembekeza, said on Tuesday that there was some progress made, despite the usual hurdles.

“The first consignment of the coupons for the Southern Region was received on November 17 and the final dispatch of the coupons for the Centre and North was received on November 24, 2015. All programme beneficiaries have since been issued with coupons,” said Chiyembekeza.

According to Chiyembekeza, the Fisp coupons for the 2015/16 farming season have been produced with support from the Department for International Development, which has spent 85,000 British Pounds to produce and airlift the coupons to Malawi.

But, still, the signs are all over that the coupons’ distribution exercise has started late, when other parts of the Southern Region have started receiving rains.

But Chiyembekeza is adamant.

“I would like to assure the nation that the programme, despite being viewed as [sic] commenced late, is on course and that all the inputs targeted under the programme will reach the intended beneficiaries in relatively good time and in right quality and quantity,” said Chiyembekeza.

But timeliness of the exercise is not the only challenge facing Fisp this year. Some private sector companies have withdrawn from the programme, citing poor terrain in some parts of the country.

“Initially, government allocated 40,000 metric tonnes of fertilizer to be retailed by the private sector. However, this has been revised to 38,600 metric tonnes following the withdrawal of the private companies from the terrain-challenged district of Nsanje which had an allocation of 1,400 metric tonnes,” admitted Chiyembekeza.

However, he was quick to point out that the Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation had been allocated the rebuffed tonnage, which would be dispatched to its retail markets.

But Chiyembekeza is not the only one adamant.

The road to 2016

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development has already started looking forward to 2015/16 planting season and, perhaps, started counting the eggs.

“The Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, in collaboration with the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services in the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining, is informing all farmers and the general public that the rainfall forecast for the 2015/16 season is generally favourable for agricultural production. In view of this, the ministry is urging all farmers who are still preparing their lands to finish as soon as possible,” said principal secretary Erica Maganga last Thursday.

But Maganga quickly doused the fire of excitement warning:

“However, the forecast indicates that there is a possibility that some areas may experience normal to below normal rainfall amounts. In addition, there are possibilities that in some areas there will be dry spells and early termination of the rains,” said Maganga.

Dry spells are not new in Malawi, as Principal Secretary in the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change Management, Dr. Yanira Ntupanyama, observed: “Currently, the major problem that Malawi has is the uncertainty on the onset and cessation of rains and the occurrence of droughts or dry spells during any particular season. These affect the length and quality of the rainfall season, which in the end affects decision-making.”

Whatever decision officials may make, though, the rains have a final say.

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