JOHANNESBURG, 1 September 2010 (IRIN)– A surplus production of maize, Malawi’s staple food, will not prevent at least one million people from being food insecure, a forecast that has not pleased President Bingu wa Mutharika.
“I am disappointed that despite the ministry of agriculture and food security releasing crop estimates that Malawi has actually posted surpluses in the production of the staple crop, maize, some newspapers are reporting that over a million Malawians will require urgent food aid,” he reportedly said.
Mutharika has threatened “to close down [local] newspapers that lie and tarnish my government’s image”, which has led to the rapid politicization of the food production sphere. Two crop assessments appear to have given rise to the situation.
Reports by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET), and the Food Security Early Warning System of the regional body the Southern African Development Community, concur on the number of food insecure.
“The [multi-agency] Malawi Assessment Committee (MVAC) assessment projects that the food insecure population will increase to 1.1 million by October 2010,” FEWSNET said in its August 2010 Food Security Outlook Update.
SADC noted in its July 2010 report that the “final crop forecast indicates a 2010 cereal production of 3.57 million tons, which is 7 percent below the 2009 harvest of 3.83 million tons, but still 23 percent higher than the last 5-year average harvest of 2.9 million tons.”
“The overall surplus is made up of 1.16 million tons of surplus maize and 17,000 tons of surplus sorghum/millet, less deficits in wheat and rice of 38,000 tons and 19,000 tons respectively. This is the fifth year running that the country has had surplus maize,” the regional body’s report commented.
Malawi’s spike in food insecurity from 147,492 people in 2009 to 1.1 million in 2010 is a consequence of “the severe dry spells which affected the highly populated Southern Region of the country,” SADC said. Malawi’s annual maize consumption is about 2.2 million tons by a population of roughly 15 million.
An aid worker who declined to be named told IRIN this was the second successive year that adverse weather conditions had caused a production deficit in the south, increasing the vulnerability of the region’s inhabitants.
“Most households in Malawi are net buyers of food. Once food stocks run out, people rely on the market. The major issue [in the south] is a combination of factors: there is a production deficit [of maize], complicated by the failure of cash crops,” the aid worker said.
“Despite large government food stocks, response plans remain unclear and the government reports that they lack funds to transport grain to the south,” FEWSNET said.
“If assistance is provided before October, southern areas currently classified as highly food insecure would likely shift to moderate food insecurity for the October-to-December period … [Assistance] will most likely take the form of either direct food distribution or cash transfers to facilitate purchasing from markets.”
Planning the future
Charles Goredema, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, a think-tank, told IRIN that Mutharika’s attack on local newspapers for publishing food insecurity numbers came at a time when “he is very sensitive to criticism, as he is grooming his younger brother [Education Minister Peter wa Mutharika] for ascension to [presidential] office after his departure at the next elections [in 2014, having served two terms of office].”
Mutharika was elected to office in 2004, when the country was suffering severe food insecurity. A multi-million dollar agriculture input subsidy programme was implemented in partnership with donors, which moved the world’s 14th poorest country into the ranks of the food secure and greatly increased Mutharika’s popularity among the 75 percent of the population who live in the rural areas.
“Viewed against an environment of perceptions of corruption on his part … He is very sensitive to criticism,” Goredema said.