Basket case to food basket

2009-07-23 00:00

WITHOUT a doubt I vote H. E. Bingu wa Mutharika, the president of the Republic of Malawi, as one of the best-performing African presidents. And the reason for it is simple. In 2004 when he came into power he made a pledge: “I will not be a president who goes around begging for food”. Unlike other rhetorical commitments we have often heard, he has put his words into action.

Malawi is an agriculture-based economy where agriculture contributes over 80% of export earnings, 38% of the GDP and supports 85% of the population.

Smallholder farming (3,42 million households) contributes 75% to agricultural production. Maize is the staple food, grown by 97% of farming households and consumed by every Malawian. Prior to 2004, Malawi was forced to import massive amounts of maize for a number of consecutive years due to bad weather and low input uptake, among other factors.

In the 2004/5 season, many parts of the country were hit by prolonged dry spells. Yields in that year dropped to around 0,8 tons per hectare, one of the lowest on record. The national production declined to fewer than 1,2 million metric tons, representing a decline of 24% from the previous year, approximately 60% of the estimated national maize food requirement. The whole country, and smallholder farmers in particular, were at risk.

In a space of three years, between 2005 and 2007, a miracle took place. The country went from a food deficit of 43% to a food surplus of 57%, productivity increased twofold from a ton per hectare to over two tons per hectare. Maize production nearly trebled from 1,23 million metric tons to 3,44 million metric tons. Malawians had enough to export. The miracle continues.

How did the miracle take place? The government doubled its expenditure on agriculture from 7,4% to 14%, increased access to farm inputs and made them more affordable through the rapid scaling up of agro dealers and a smart subsidy programme (through non-transferable coupons) for a whole range of farmers.

From food exports and sales to the World Food Programme through the Purchase for Progress Programme, the country has been generating in excess of U.S.$120 million annually. This is then ploughed back into the programme. And to ensure that smallholder farmers graduate faster from reliance on subsidised input for food security, the government has embarked on a manure-making campaign, intensified extension and research in agriculture and the Greenbelt Initiative.

In 2003, in what is commonly referred to as the Maputo Protocol, African governments were supposed to have worked towards a similar miracle across the continent. They committed to spend 10% of their national budgets on agriculture in order to ensure food security for their citizens by 2015. However, so far only six countries are honouring this political commitment. Besides Malawi, they include Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and Ethiopia. Nearly seven years after making the political commitment, 17 countries still spend less than five percent of their national budgets on agriculture.


Malawi has restored faith in Africa by demonstrating that the continent need not become the world’s basket case. Effective ways to improve agriculture and combat food insecurity are no longer a secret. In fact they are quite simple: scale up access and affordability of high-yielding farm inputs through scaling up agro dealers, put in place a smart subsidy programme for farmers, close the resource gap by leveraging commercial banks to lend more to agriculture through risk-sharing arrangements, build Africa’s capacity for evidence-based policies by strengthening policy institutions, and make operational policies to promote agro processing and value addition.

However, the one ingredient that pulls all these solutions together is the political will to deliver on commitments that have already been made. As in the case of Malawi, donors may be resistant at the beginning but if the country hangs in there, in the end, as long as the programme is well run and corruption-free, everyone will want to associate with success as did the donor community in Malawi which provides budgetary support — FID, EU, Norad, Irish Aid and World Bank, among others.

It is time that Africa takes the initiative to make hunger history.


• Archbishop Njongo Ndungane is the founder and president of African Monitor,

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