Unregulated importation of maize from Tanzania is putting the country at a risk of a graver food shortage as it exposes fields to a disease outbreak with the potential to wipe out harvests of the staple grain in Malawi.
Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN), a viral disease, has been ravaging maize fields on the northern part of Tanzania since 2013 and has reportedly spilled southwards to Mbeya District which shares borders with Karonga.
The sight of truckloads of maize entering the country via Songwe Border in Karonga is not just a sign of traders scrambling to cash in on 6.5 million Malawians who face El Nino-induced food shortage.
Karonga district agricultural extension committee president Lawrence Kanjira is worried that government has not put in place preventive measures against risk factors of the untreatable outbreak.
Equally risky are shiploads of the cereal crossing Lake Malawi to Nkhata Bay Port where it is being offloaded.
“It is worrisome that government appears not to take proactive steps to curb the disease. If there are areas that need urgent sensitisation, we need not look further than districts that share borders with Tanzania,” he said.
Only the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development workforce have been sensitised, said Karonga district agricultural development officer (Dado) James Chikoya.
He spoke of plans to ensure that all citizens “from traditional leaders to small-scale farmers become familiar with the disease which seriously affects yields sometimes causing complete loss of the harvests as it renders affected crops barren.
Its symptoms comprise severe stunting, drying and premature aging of the plant, with mild to stark molting of leaves, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).
The disease was not detected in samples collected on the Malawian soil, scientists from Makoka Research Station said.
However, Rumphi Dado Yangson Nyirenda recently warned members of the district’s civil society network to get ready for the maize viral disease now in Mbeya.
Government, however, keeps assuring Malawians that the country is free from the outbreak.
Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development spokesperson Hamilton Chimala has urged traders against procuring maize from affected zones.
“Not all parts of Tanzania have been affected. The danger only comes when you plant the seeds. Fortunately, the country is purely buying the maize for consumption,” he said
Cimmyt, an international think-tank which is working with Tanzanian government to identify disease-resistant maize varieties, says LMN is difficult to control because it is caused by a combination of viruses and spreads through seeds and grasshoppers and other vectors that may be carried by wind over a long distance.
It says Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia are among countries at a riski due to their proximity to Tanzania, and the tragic reality is that almost all maize varieties in southern Africa are reportedly susceptible to the viral disease.
Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture chairperson Felix Jumbe has asked government to ensure that incoming maize is up to standard.
“This is a high risk disease and it has to be managed because the country desperately needs maize and not the entire Tanzania is affected.
“We need to observe all importation procedures as well as rigorous inspection to ensure imported maize is disease-free,” he said.