For the first time in months, Esmie Kamoto, a 47-year-old from Lunzu in Malawi’s commercial city, Blantyre, had to tell her family that she can no longer put food on the table.
Poor harvests had plagued the most vulnerable such as Kamoto, a widow who used to survive on a small business and the little maize she harvested, but with soaring food prices, life became hard for her in 2012.
“I find it hard to say that I cannot feed my family any longer, but this is the reality,” Kamoto, a subsistence farmer who grows maize on a small piece of land and sometimes sells thobwa (sweet beer), last year told The Nation on the sidelines of the World Food Programme (WFP) initiative that gives food to poor families from selected areas.
Kamoto’s harvest did not last three months and as maize prices and transport costs increased, households purchasing power continued to decline.
Squeezed supplies and a towering inflation kept the price of the main staple grain, maize, high. Malawi has seen prices increase from 40 to 100 percent since 2011.
The most vulnerable also grappled with rising inflation (33.3 percent as of November), the 49 percent devaluation of the kwacha and few opportunities to work as casual labourers—factors that together pushed the number of food-insecure people to nearly 2 million.
In May 2012, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security released official crop production estimates for the 2011/12 agricultural season, indicating that the country produced about 3.6 million metric tonnes of maize compared to 3.89 million metric tonnes the previous growing season.
This projection represented an overall national maize surplus of about 800 000 metric tonnes against a national domestic food consumption requirement estimated at 2.8 million metric tonnes.
However, most districts, particularly in the Southern Region, experienced localised food deficits mainly due to late onset of planting rains coupled with erratic rainfall pattern and prolonged dry spells.
The Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (Mvac) conducted an update assessment in October 2012 as a follow up to the findings of June 2012.
The update analysis projected that the number of vulnerable population had increased from 1 630 007 to 1 972 993 people, representing a 21 percent increase.
The total population would now require at least 84 811 metric tonnes (up from 75 394) of maize equivalent with a total cash value of K6.7 billion (about $ 21.3 million).
Erratic rainfall pattern and prolonged dry spells in 2012 meant Kamoto and others in 16 districts of Balaka, Blantyre, Chikhwawa, Chiradzulu, Dedza, Machinga, Mangochi, Mulanje, Mwanza, Neno, Nsanje, Ntcheu, Phalombe, Salima, Thyolo and Zomba, harvested almost nothing.
But humanitarian aid agencies have been trying to avert crises in the country.
Even with humanitarian assistance, which started in early September, households in nine districts in southern Malawi remained in phase two or the stressed level of the Integrated Phase Classification, a scale for measuring the intensity of food insecurity.
In areas where aid has not yet been disbursed, people are still in phase three, crisis level.
But humanitarian funding remains insufficient and if shortfalls persist during the lean season—January through March—more poor households in the South could fall into phase three, warned the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fews Net) or even phase four, an emergency state.
The government, the UN and other aid agencies have put together a cluster-based response plan requiring more than a $100 million. The clusters— agriculture and food security, health and nutrition, education and protection — have raised little more than $41 million.
Still, this leaves a resource gap of more than $59 million. WFP, which is currently distributing aid to 1.8 million people, says it needs $14 million to cover its shortfall, reads a Fews Net report.
Government has pledged to release 47 600 metric tonnes of maize from its Strategic Grain Reserve to the Department of Disaster Management Affairs and WFP to provide maize through March 2013.
The government has also retained an export ban on maize to control prices.
WFP and partners have also launched an innovative system using mobile phones to transfer cash to more than 100 000 people, which will allow them to buy food in local markets.
Fews Net estimates these initiatives will help the almost two million people in need of assistance.
Noting that droughts are getting more frequent, the government announced a strategy to build resilience and reduce vulnerability that focuses on strategic interventions such as social protection, income diversification schemes and micro-loans.
Kamoto now has been registered among families to benefit from a WFP initiative that is giving food to the poorest families from selected areas.
She is one of 1 089 beneficiaries in Traditional Authority Kapeni’s area who have received K8 840 cash transfer.
Besides, she also benefited from the first two phases of the programme. She received a 50 kilogramme bag of maize, 10 kilogrammes of cowpeas (khobwe) and 5kg of soya beans during the months of September and October.
From November 28 to 30, WFP and its NGO partners disbursed cash transfers to 67 177 beneficiaries in Senior T/A Kapeni, T/A Lundu and T/A Machinjiri in Blantyre; T/A Sitola in Machinga and Senior T/A Makwangwala in Ntcheu.
WFP is expected to scale-up the programme to reach more beneficiaries and one more traditional authority in Mangochi.
Kamoto is optimistic about the future, saying she might use part of the money to restart her thobwa business which might bring more food on her table.
Ted Nowa, deputy chairperson of the overseeing committee in T/A Kapeni’s area, said the cash transfers will help reduce the impact of the economic woes in the area as well as the country.
“The relief food people got in September and October greatly helped,” said Nowa.
WFP was approached by the Department of Disaster Management Affairs to cushion people from the hunger situation after the Mvac report.
Government has joined forces with WFP and Airtel in a Cash Transfer Programme to help more than 100 000 people affected by food shortages in central and southern Malawi. Funding for the initiative is being provided by UKAid.
“In 2012/2013, WFP Malawi is supporting the Government of Malawi to assist nearly two million vulnerable people affected by food shortages. WFP will assist over 108 000 of these people through cash transfers and 1.8 million have already benefited from the programme.
“Through the cash transfers, WFP is addressing the food shortage in an innovative way through e-vouchers delivered by the messages on mobile phones, in the five T/As designated for cash transfers,” says Abdoulaye Diop, WFP country manager.
Meanwhile, analysis for 2012/2013 rainfall season says Malawi is expected to experience normal rainfall, but extreme weather events such as floods will occur in low lying areas.