Forewarned is forearmed. Government cannot claim it was not told about the drought and the impending crop deficit as a result of the same. Not only were tell-tale signs of hunger in the 2015/16 growing season evident from as early as December last year, there was also a media blitz that Malawi would be visited upon by the El Nino weather pattern which is characterized by less rain.
If Malawi had visionary leaders, for a country that is 98 percent dependant on rain-fed agriculture, news about El Nino should have made them go back on the drawing board to review the budget on agriculture.
As forewarned, it came to pass. For a second consecutive year, drought hit the country—especially in the Southern Region and some parts of the Central Region. The first crop estimates issued early February this year revealed that maize harvests would be two percent lower than last year, or 2.7 million MT against the national requirement of 3.2 million MT.
This meant that, at a minimum, just like last year, more than 2.8 million Malawians would be food insecure this year.
Last year, the World Food Programme, came to the country’s rescue by providing food for 2.4 million, leaving government to feed the other 400 000 food insecure Malawians. With this shot in the arm, government only imported 30 000 MT of maize. Suffice it to say that even this it did under panic when many Malawians were suffering.
Then we had the Mid-Year Budget Review which ended in March. This was an opportune time for government to revise the agriculture budget and deal with the imminent maize deficit. As usual, the MPs tussled about what to fund and what not to fund. Changes were made here and there to the national budget—some in the proverbial fashion of robbing Peter to pay Paul. In all honesty, there was nothing to reflect government’s awareness of and plans to avert hunger in the wake of the El Nino.
The budget review ended in March. This was almost one-and-a-half months after the first crop estimates had shown that food harvests would be lower than last year and four months after the El Nino weather phenomenon had been rearing its ugly face.
Now, the second crop estimates have revealed that maize production will be lower by a whopping 12.7 percent as compared to last year, meaning that there will be a deficit of 1 072 461 MT over the national requirement.
It is only now that government is waking up from its deep slumber, sounding an SOS, with only two months to the end of the financial year.
Once upon-a-time, when food security was government’s number one priority, government would plan for winter cropping to alleviate maize deficits like the one the country will face this year.
The mid-year budget review meeting would therefore have been a grand opportunity for the Ministry of Agriculture to push in a winter cropping budget line. Donors would definitely have chipped in with something as they always do knowing that it is better to subsidise production than consumption.
But search me if there is any budget line for winter cropping in the revised budget estimates. The irrigation budget is static at K97 million. Instead government seems to have largesse—through its line ministries—to splash on celebrations for readmission to the International Monetary Fund ‘ICU’—the Extended Credit Facility.
It’s not that there is a dearth of qualified technocrats in the agriculture ministry, or government as a whole. What the country is suffering from is a debilitating shortage of political will to do the needful when called upon to do so.
Government hardly needs to be reminded that El Nino has affected the whole southern Africa region. It is, therefore, foolhardy to expect to get much from the region by way of maize imports as it did this year because all the neighbours have equally been affected by drought. And visionary as they are, they will reserve whatever they have for their own consumption. I can guarantee that the little, if any, Malawi could get from its neighbours this year will cost a leg and an arm.
Sadly, government was happy revising upwards the malata and cement subsidy programme with a jaw-dropping K7 billion to benefit a few people just to be politically correct at the expense of alleviating real suffering among millions of Malawians.