German ambassador to Malawi PETER WOESTE offers agricultural tips to the government in this interview with our reporter BONIFACE PHIRI.
What do you think is the main problem with the country’s agricultural-based economy?
Agriculture is the backbone of Malawi’s economy, but approximately 80 percent of the population work and survives as small-scale farmers in rural areas, operating on small or very small land holdings. In many geographic areas, the infrastructure is poor and access to markets and market information is limited. Hence, rural households tend to primarily focus on subsistence farming. So, very poor productivity is the core problem of the country’s agricultural economy. The land is poorly utilised. This country has plenty of water and some good soil, although deforestation and soil erosion threaten this. There are areas of the country that could almost feed the country from winter cropping alone if managed properly. Far too many farmers grow just enough to survive, but the country needs them to take a step forward to becoming commercial farmers no matter how small. Malawi’s economy will never grow without the development of commercial farmers, even when they may be small in the beginning.
Why is it a problem that Malawian farmers grow just enough to survive?
The low degree of market integration reduces the capacity to improve productivity of small-scale farmers. Diversification of agricultural production or added value to agricultural raw products through processing is limited. This, together with low market integration makes any move into non-agricultural production or other economic activities unlikely. Hence, household and farm incomes remain low and opportunities for employment are limited. Increasing the number of small-scale commercial farmers will improve the rural economy. The equation is easy; more crop production, more crops sold commercially, more money circulating in rural areas. Suddenly, our local industries will have a bigger market to service, at present the current purchasing power of the rural population is so low that local industries have little incentive to develop.
You have spoken on the need for government to prioritise the Land Bill. Why is this important?
Many subsistence farmers do not grow enough to meet their basic food requirements throughout the year. Small-scale farmers are challenged by a number of factors–from access to land, fertiliser, seed, machinery and funding to climate change effects and unfavourable work conditions. The knowhow of farmers to improve irrigation, production or processing is also often limited. We cannot talk about rural development without discussing the land issue because land plays an important role in agricultural growth and reduction of poverty. In view of this, I urge the government to prioritise the tabling of the new Land Bill in Parliament as this will pave the way for improved access to land. In turn, this will stimulate farmers to invest in agriculture and irrigation leading to improved food security and increased income generation. Equally important to achieving food security and substantial agriculture growth is the access to the right quality and variety of seeds. Current procedures to allow new varieties to be available on the market are, in my opinion, too slow and bureaucratic. Excluding a large part of the productive population from access to land leaves an actually existing source for economic and social development untapped. Fair and secure access to land is also a key precondition for investing in land to improve its productivity (e.g. through soil improvement or irrigation) in a long-term and sustainable way.
How should Admarc operate so that it is relevant to the country’s agricultural growth?
The role of Admarc in the sector should be reviewed. The corporation should operate in a transparent manner. It is ridiculous that farmers sell to vendors right after the harvest season at low prices, because government restocks reserves only months later when prices have risen and vendors can make more profit.
Explain your sentiments that nsima is the country’s daily concern. Just what do you mean by that?
The nutritional value of nsima (maize) as a staple food is insufficient for a healthy diet. Malawi has rich potential to grow a variety of vegetables, fruits and pulses which deliver vitamins and minerals for balanced and diverse meals. In reality, nsima is the daily concern because here food means maize. We have unacceptable malnutrition levels, especially among children under five. But the budget for the ministry of agriculture still focuses largely on the maize crop. There was a time when Europeans depended on grain and experienced terrible hunger periods, but visionary leaders forced our ancestors to change nutrition habits. It can be done here. n