The battle of responding to the 2.8 million people facing hunger is almost won now. But a similar battle is gathering momentum. How effective are preparedness plans government is putting in place? EPHRAIM NYONDO writes:
Three weeks ago, the queues were long and winding at Chilomoni Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (Admarc) Depot in Blantyre.
Thousands, like 37-year-old Esme Kansalu, could invade the tiny gates of the depot as early as 3 am for rationed 20 kilogrammes of maize at an affordable K2 200.
“I arrive early to ensure that I buy in time, rush home, grind it quickly and have the maize flour ready so that my children are saved from two days without nsima,” Kansalu explained when I met her around 7 am returning from the depot three weeks ago.
I returned to Chilomoni Admarc Depot two days ago. It was around 9am. I noted that the lines have become shorter and straight—a contrast to the longer and winding ones seen three weeks ago.
“It is getting a bit better now,” said one Chilomoni Township lady who only identified herself as Lucy.
Added Lucy, married mother of three: “The panic is easing. I came because the one I bought two weeks ago is drifting to completion. My only fear is that private traders will come and buy it all.”
It would be rash, of course, to conclude, just from a remote Chilomoni experience, that the acute food shortage, that left 2.8 million Malawians without food, is in its twilight. Thousands continue to invade Admarc depots across the country to purchase the rationed and affordable 20kg of maize.
However, in the past week, there has been intensified purchase of maize by government which, indeed, is easing the pressure.
For instance, from Monday last week, Admarc said ‘more maize will be available in most of its depots…following the purchase of 30 000 metric tonnes (MT) of the grain from Zambia’.
Further, in his Mid-Year Budget Review Statement in Parliament two weeks ago, Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development Goodall Gondwe disclosed that Treasury has empowered Admarc to procure another consignment of 50 000 MT maize from neighbouring Tanzania.
“As we see it, we have and will have enough maize in stock that will be more than enough to satisfy Admarc markets in the coming days,” said Gondwe.
Government’s various moves come against the background of various development partners pouring in resources for the purchase of maize. For instance, last week the US government gave K20 billion to government as part of response to the food shortage.
With these concerted efforts, one would bet that by April, which is next month, the current rush for affordable and rationed maize will ease.
Genesis of the shortage
The flood disaster and dry spells that hit the country in January and February respectively last year, saw maize production decline by 30.2 percent from 3 978 123MT in 2013/14 to 2 776 277 MT in the 2014/2015 season.
The maize production decline translated into a maize deficit of 223 273 MT when compared to the national maize requirement estimated at 3 million metric tons.
As a result, the country registered relatively large number of people in need of relief food as compared to the previous years.
A report by the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (Mvac) showed that about 2.8 million people, representing 17 per cent of the country’s population, would be food insecure in 25 districts across the country in the current consumption season.
The Mvac Response Plan estimated the food needs of the vulnerable population—for a period ranging from 3 to 8 months starting from September 2015 to April 2016—as 124 183 MT of maize equivalent out of which 88 019 MT would be maize while the rest would be in form of food items such as pulses and cooking oil.
The African El Nino picture
The flood disaster and dry spells that has left 2.8 million Malawians food insecure, which experts say results from the wave of El Nino from 2015, was not just confined to Malawi.
Data from UN, IRIN, the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS Net) and various news agencies reveals that more than 40 million people in Africa, today, are facing food insecurity—and some, outright starvation.
South Africa’s newspaper Mail & Guardian Africa reports that the continent needs at least $4.5 billion for emergency relief, but just a fraction of that has been raised so far.
In absolute numbers, Ethiopia is the hardest hit with 10.2 million in need of food aid this year. The UN says the country faces its worst drought in fifty years, which needs about $1.4 billion to manage. Nearly a quarter of South Sudan’s population, or 2.8 million people, urgently needs food aid and the UN says the country needs $1.3 billion to provide emergency relief.
In Zimbabwe drought about 3 million people may need food aid this year and Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa told Mail and Guardian that the country needs about $1.6 million to combat hunger. South Africa, reports the Mail and Guardian, has already five out of the country’s nine provinces been declared drought disaster zones, and analysts expect South Africa to import between 3 million and 4 million tonnes of maize to fill the gap. In Angola, 1.25 million are at risk.
Neighbouring Mozambique has El Niño’s climate impact split the country into two—in, the north there has been flooding, in the south drought. IRIN reports that a further 575 000 people are food insecure, especially in Zambézia, Maputo and Niassa provinces.
In Swaziland, more than 201 000 people out of 1.1 million—one fifth of the population, are food insecure. In Madagascar, nearly 1.9 million people—8.6 percent of the population—were “food insecure” in 2015, with 450 000 of them in crisis. DR Congo has not been spared; an estimated 6.6 million people face food shortages.
Another gathering storm
Despite various countries appear to be winning in responding to the 2015/2016 food crisis, climate change experts warn that the El Nino which hit the country this year—causing floods and dry spells—will again impact food security across the country.
Already, there are fears that the food crisis in the 2016/2017 season could be worse. According to the Ministry of Agriculture’s crop approximation results for 2015/16, the country will record a further drop in maize harvest of around two percent.
The results of the 2015/16 agricultural production estimates survey of the first round—which the ministry conducted—indicated maize production is projected at 2 719 425MT which is two percent lower than last year’s estimates of 2 776 277MT.
Govt preparedness plan
In his statement during the Mid-Term Budget Review in Parliament, Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Allan Chiyembekeza spelled out two major interventions that government has put in place to avert the gathering storm of food insecurity.
Chiyembekeza said that as part of Agricultural Risk Management Strategy, government insured the national maize crop against severe drought in the 2015/2016 season.
The insurance—which was bought from the Africa Risk Capacity Limited Company—is an initiative of the African Union (AU).
In the insurance, government paid a premium of K2.9 billion. This annual premium has a maximum coverage of $30 million.
“The country is likely to receive some payout in the event that rains curtail early. As such, government is closely monitoring the season to see if a payout could be triggered based on the set and agreed parameters,” he said.
The other plan, according to Chiyembekeza, is the Intensive Maize Production Programme.
In the programme, government has embarked on plans to intensify food production through irrigation for sale to the National Food Reserve Agency and Admarc.
He added they intend to engage small, medium and large-scale farmers that have potential to produce maize under irrigation and sell to Government through either Admarc or National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA).
Already, the Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (MCCCI) and the Civil Society Agricultural Network (CisaNet) have commended government for the programme.
“This is what the private sector has always lobbied government to consider doing as it is the only way to having food security,” said MCCCI president, Newton Kambala, in an interview with Weekend Nation last week.
Kambala added that the initiative would open a new avenue of investment in the local business as well as improve efficiency as businesses will be encouraged to invest in irrigation.
CisaNet national coordinator, Tamani Nkhono-Mvula, said he is happy that government has responded to their earlier request to identify companies for the very same purpose.
“As you are aware, the government buys maize for the SGR through the National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA) which has had to wait for budget approval to buy maize. In most cases, it has been vendors who buy more maize because NFRA delays due to government procedures.
“As a result, we were failing as a country to buy maize from the farmers in excess of 60 000MT,” he said.