Michael Jana, political economist lecturer at Chancellor College, has researched and published widely on the political economy of agriculture in the country.
In a 2011 article From Subsistence to Smallholder Commercial Farming in Malawi: A Case of NASFAM Commercialisation Initiatives, Chancellor College economics professor Ephraim Chirwa, too, agrees.
“The dominance of subsistence farming with traditional farming systems in the smallholder sector is one of the concerns in achieving higher agricultural productivity,” writes Chirwa.
So, can commercialisation of Malawi’s agriculture be the right means to achieve the food security end?
Experts agree that the process of agricultural commercialisation involves transition from traditional self-sufficiency goals towards income and profit-oriented decision making.
Chirwa, however, around agriculture commercialisation tend to separate producers into different types of farm (small farms, large farms) growing different types of crops (food crops, cash crops) with simple distinctions made between ‘subsistence’ and ‘commercial’ or ‘export’ agriculture.
But for Jana, investing in subsistence farming is essentially hand-to-mouth and can be costly to subsidise in the long run.
The model of commercialisation Jana proposes is not out of the blue. Former president the late Bingu wa Mutharika’s administration articulated it in detail in the contents of the Green Belt Initiative (GBI).
GBI origins lie in Bingu’s government realisation that one major investment problem encountered by big farmers is lack of large tracts of land viable for commercial farming at the highest possible economies of scale.
As such, government, through the programme, declared its intention to deal with this investment hurdle by committing itself to facilitate the acquisition of land from smallholder farmers.
However, according to a 2011 paper by Chirwa and political researchers Blessings Chinsinga, Henry Chingaipe and Michael Chasukwa, titled The Political Economy of Land Alienation: Exploring ‘Land Grabs’ in the Green Belt Initiative in Malawi, Malawi cannot easily commercialise using large scale commercial farmers if it does not review its land laws because much of arable land is customary.
Save for the need to review the land laws, GBI is, again, trapped in serious implementation hurdles.
A study by Civil Society Agriculture Network (CisaNet) titled Green Belt Initiative: An Assessment of the Policy Processes and Civic Engagement’, notes that civic engagement is big challenge.
The study, however, recommends the need to constitute GBI task forces in targeted communities to facilitate civic engagement of ordinary people whose land is targeted by the initiative.
Besides civic engagement, GBI national coordinator Henrie Njoloma also notes inadequate funding as a key challenge. However, the Cisanet study notes that the funding problem could be managed if there can be an effective resource mobilisation strategy to finance the strategic activities of the GBI particularly construction of irrigation infrastructure.
To achieve that, experts advise that the management of GBIneeds to be changed—arguing for the need to be delinked from the Office of President and Cabinet (OPC).
The commission recommended to have GBI as a separate entity and an independent entity be created, namely the Green Belt Authority, as a way of strengthening it to accelerate Malawi’s development.
The question, however, is: does changing the managerial structure of GBI solve financial woes that have stalled the initiative’s capacity to take off?
“The main challenge, right now, is that the initiative is not being funded effectively. We are failing to fund it when it’s inside OPC. I am not sure if the funding problem will be solved when GBI becomes semi-autonomous,” says Tamani Nkhono-Mvula, CisaNet national coordinator.
Even the question management will be problematic if GBI becomes a separate entity, adds Nkhono-Mvula.
However, despite these reservations, Nkhono-Mvula supports the Commission’s recommendation to move the initiative from the OPC.
“I feel the move would ease the bureaucratic processes of generating resources the initiative has been facing. Being under OPC, it means decisions had to be quite consultative to be arrived upon.
“This, somehow, explain the delays that have stalled the initiative. If it becomes a separate entity, decision making will be albeit lighter,” he said.
According to Njoloma the change in GBI management is currently at an advanced stage. He says they have already been given a nod from Cabinet, what is remaining is for technocrats to sit down and draft its structure.