Our look into the Malawian Hunger Crisis

Here is our first inside look at the Malawian food crisis which so many of you back home in the USA have read about in the papers. We have found that there is much more to the “crisis” than the papers have told. This is our first attempt to explain the problem, as we see it, more fully. Its a twisted tale of economics, agriculture, taste buds, and “drought”.

Newspapers in the USA usually list drought as the culprit for hunger in Malawi. Predictably every year Malawi receives large amounts of rain during its rainy season from November to March. From April through October is the dry season. This is what newspapers in the USA often refer to as the drought. Its hard to call the dry season in Malawi a drought, because it is a very predictable weather pattern that happens every year in Malawi. A drought is a severe, unexpected absence of rain; Malawi's dry season is neither severe nor unexpected. The dry season happens every year. Currently in Malawi we are in the rainy season, everything is green and tropical. The forests look like the forests of Brazil. During the dry season, Malawi makes a transformation from a tropical paradise to an arid climate which feels and looks much like the plains of Colorado or the mountains of northern Arizona. Its dry, but like Arizona, a fairly green and lush – capable of sustaining indigenous plants adapted to local weather patterns. So if you hear about drought in Malawi, chances are you are really just hearing about our dry season, something that all of us living in Malawi know will come every year. We are convinced that there really is no drought in Malawi. There is only a dry season.

The rainy season is also known as the hungry season, because the staple food crop maize is not mature enough to be harvested and consumed. Marissa and I have been asking a few Malawians that we have meet along the way about prices of maize. Because the maize harvest is just about one month away, we are deep into hunger season. The price of a 50kg bag of maize has reached 3000 MK (about $23.00 USD). If there is any maize at all in the markets, most people simply can't afford to buy. During the harvest the price of maize will fall to 500 MK (about $3.84 USD) for the same 50 kg bag. I was told buy a friend that the 50kg bag of maize can feed himself and his brother for two months. Due to many factors, there is simply not enough maize produced to supply the hunger demands of the Malawian population for the year. Each year maize becomes scarce and those that cannot afford to buy it often go hungry.

Malawians have a strong cultural preference for eating maize. In fact we have heard many foreign agricultural aide workers blame Malawian taste buds alone for the food crisis. The cultural preference (or maize addiction) seems to be a young tradition rooted in government initiatives of about 30-40 years ago during the Green Revolution. During that time the government convinced Malawian farmers that high calorie maize would be the answer to the country's hunger problems. It was also thought that maize could be exported for profit. Maize can be a very high yield crop per acre when supplied with enough water and fertilizer.

Some foreign aide workers have explained to us, however, that maize production requires unnecessarily high amounts of water and fertilizer. They add, that it is also more prone to droughts than some other crops that grow naturally here in Malawi. Maize production takes a relatively heavy toll on the naturally fertile soil and needs a consistent supply of water which is not available here during the dry season without irrigation. We have yet to find a single farmer in Malawi that irrigates their crops. A nutritionists we spoke with also mentioned that maize, although filling, has a very low nutritional value. The foreign agriculture and food security community are mostly of the opinion that Malawi's hunger crisis can directly be traced to Malawi's strong cultural preference to grow and eat maize.

A Malawian friend of ours who is a teacher and works a guest house where we were staying, said that Malawians will have a house full of vegetables like avocados and tomatoes, yet if there is no maize, the person will tell you they have no food to eat. For this reason many Malawian farmers are gravely afraid to grow other crops. Marissa and I went to the market today, in the middle of the hungry season and were able to purchase bananas, avocados, beans, rice, tomato, potato, cassava, peanuts, eggplant, cabbage, and onion totaling about 5KG in weight for about 440 MK ($3.75 USD). This is hunger season, but it doesn't mean that there is not food in the markets. The land here in Malawi is very fertile and able to produce everything but maize this time of year. Interestingly the land produces these local species of fruits and vegetables with very little attention from Malawi's farmers. Much of the groceries we purchased today were gathered in the wild or were produced on small side plots of larger maize farms. Malawian farmers (pretty much everyone you meet) focus nearly all their production on maize to feed their families. Like most foreign agriculture aide workers, Marissa and I are more and more convinced that a reduced reliance on maize and a more diversified crop production of native species would almost surely eliminate the hunger crisis. Its amazing and frustrating to see hunger in a place where bananas, avocados, and mangoes grow by accident!

Our vegetables, bought at the gringo price we paid (local Malawians could have negotiated a much better price), are still more expensive than maize pound for pound. Processed and ground maize, unlike fruits and vegetables, can be stored for long periods of time without going bad. It would not be fair to fully blame Malawian taste buds for the food crisis. There are some clear economic preferences for maize that must be recognized here as well. It is true. however. that maize is really the only food crop in Malawi that is mass produced on a large scale. We have yet to determine whether mass production of other native crops might make them economically more attractive and affordable than maize.

To summarize ,the food crisis you hear about in Malawi is the result of many factors (drought is NOT one of them):

  • The strong cultural preference of Malawian society to eat maize
  • The resource intensive nature of maize production in Malawi. Maize doesn't grow naturally and requires heavy amounts of water and fertilizer to grow in Malawi. Maize is very vulnerable in the dry season.
  • The low nutritional value of maize
  • Lack of irrigation practices to mitigate the effects of the dry season
  • Cultural fear of crop diversification
  • Widespread mass production of maize makes the most attractive food source and essentially prices other fruits and vegetable food sources out of the market for the majority of Malawians