Here are the cold hard facts: Agriculture remains Malawi’s most important economic sector. More than a third of Malawi’s gross domestic product (GDP) comes from agriculture.
More than three-quarters of the workforce is absorbed by agriculture. Roughly, 80 percent of the country’s foreign currency earnings come from the sector. Heck, 65 percent of Malawi’s manufacturing sector gets its raw materials from agriculture.
For rural Malawi, agriculture is their life, with 64 percent of total income of the country’s rural population coming from agriculture. The sector is really the overwhelming source of their livelihood.
When it comes to national and household food security, agriculture is the go to sector. So, frankly, it made a lot of sense to me that President Lazarus Chakwera decided to grace the 2022 Malawi Agricultural Productivity and Commercialisation Conference.
There is no doubt that Malawi needs to undertake and undergo massive policy reforms if the country is to enhance agricultural productivity and aggressively push commercialization of the sector.
But I feel that we have not dwelt much on the underlying causes of low agricultural productivity. I know the analysis of the causes have been done, but very little progress has been made in addressing these challenges.
The rush for the mega farms, for example, will be a waste of time and resources if nothing is done to the challenges that have slowed progress in this area.
For example, if you do not address the crisis that is land degradation because of deforestation as people wantonly cut down trees for charcoal, firewood, housing and even cultivation, will the mega farms bring desired results?
We have allowed overgrazing, siltation, land fragmentation on the back of massive population booms and water pollution by irresponsible and sometimes fake industries and we think we can increase productivity? How?
Climate change continues to ravage the country with no clear plan or will to address it. How can we increase productivity among the people of the Lower Shire, for example, that are flood-prone and who have to watch their crops destroyed every year on account of floods?
How can we raise productivity when man-made droughts are the order of the day in a country that largely depends on rain-fed agriculture? Sure, long term-investment and technological applications are crucial in this endeavour. But even if you were to put billions into irrigation farming, how long will you use the water from lakes and rivers that are drying up because of poor management of catchment areas and the general environment around us?
Let’s assume we have the technology and the capital, how effective will those be with the current poor communication between farmers and those who should take the technology and the capital to them? Is it any wonder that despite excellent improvements to seeds, especially high yielding hybrid seeds, roughly half of Malawian farmers do not use these hybrid seeds, preferring old varieties because ‘ndi chokonoka’?
The crucial strand in agriculture communication—the agricultural extension service—is as good as dead and we still think productivity can grow? How? Then there is the heart-rending road by farmers to access credit. The formal financial sector is not interested in agriculture although they do love the forex the sector brings for them to trade and make billions while shunning to invest in the very goose that lays the forex eggs.
Is there even a coherent plan to improve this? And then there is the question of farm gate prices, oh my. They are so low compared to farmers’ investments in inputs that they are the biggest cause of the declining levels of agricultural productivity.
There is talk of commercialisation. Can that be achieved without an integrated value addition plan? What about the narrow industrial base and the depressingly weak intra and inter-sectoral linkages crucial to commerce? What is being done about that? There is a long way to go and I am not very optimistic.