Even with the Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture projecting a 740 000 metric ton surplus in April, President Joyce Banda has been going around the country telling Malawians that they should brace up for fierce hunger which she prefers calling njala yoopsa.
For Mary Kampake, the President’s forecast, repeated during her recent tour of the North, casts a shadow of uncertainty over a good harvest she prefers calling a year of answers. In her speech, she sees a people who planted in tears amid skyrocketing prices paying a huge price to buy the same harvest they have lost to vendors with suspicious scales and prices.
The mother of nine in T/A Kaduya, Phalombe shudders to go back to the days when lean harvests turned her family into a “house of hunger”. But many already are trekking the dangerous road to food shortage for the lack of sound markets compelled them to exchange their produce with clothes, kitchen utensils, beddings and other things the vendors bring.
“Woe to us, rural farmers, for we have already lost a great deal of our maize and other produce to traders who give us peanuts. We are always doomed to buy the same at higher prices when the hunger starts biting,” says Kampake, who is marvelling at a year of plenty.
According to district agricultural development officer Osmund Chapotoka, Phalombe is home to about 102 000 farming families, but five percent—5 100—of them are food insecure this year.
From Kampake’s household, their agricultural exploits come in a flicker: Farming land cleared soon after harvesting, stacks of maize bags from the previous growing season and newly built mounds of manure awaiting another growing term. Her family prefers calling agriculture their life, a conviction that persuades them to toil all year round and leaves them feeling let down when the yield is marred by unfavourable weather.
“We have harvested 50 bags, up from between 10 and 15 bags in the previous years. We are no longer a house of hunger. We can give our children three meals a day, sell some for their clothing and other basic necessities and send them to school without worrying about their stomachs,” she brags.
‘Her household breakthrough has not gone unnoticed. The Kampakes were among few farming families which were awarded bicycles at the district’s agricultural show in recognition of their creative use of organic manure along with the subsidised fertiliser that form the core of the K60 billion State-sponsored Farm Input Subsidy Programme.
According farmers, a chance to share skills and network with supplies of essential technologies , the agricultural fair was in itself a spectacular show of how the district has defied the odds—devastating floods and drought that hit some pockets—to become food secure. On display was a diversity of a health produce: Cereals from maize to millet and sorghum; vegetables ranging from cabbages to tomatoes and onions; fruits like oranges, lemons, tangerines and bananas; legumes from groundnuts to beans and peas as well as tubers from cassava, yams and potatoes.
To district commissioner Charles Makanga, the harvest on display tells two success stories and one that calls for radical controls to save the country from haranguing about food crisis.
“The good news is that people are heeding calls never to rely on maize alone and the food situation in the district looks better despite floods and dry spells in some parts. However, the bad news is that people may end up selling everything to unlicensed vendors and leave themselves in need of relief supplies,” said Makanga.
His fears are clear at every trading centre. A trip between Chitakale in Mulanje and Phalombe Boma is an encounter with how low-income farmers are being swindled by vendors using suspicious scales that are usually tampered with and readjusted anyhow. Some of the weighing gadgets are clearly labelled “not for trade”. At worst, they are being used to maize, beans, groundnuts and peanuts at ultra-low prices as the visiting businesspeople maximise their profits.
Of the 42 spotted along the 45km stretch, only four were the trade type recommended by Malawi Bureau of Standards who regulate, calibrate and accredit weighing instruments in the country. The good ones largely constituted those made by the UK firm, Salter, except some of them did not bear a seal.
Every time people in farm produce businesses make profits, it is the ordinary farmer who bears the loss. The aftermaths can be graver as the government figures show the growers already lose 40 percent of their yield to poor storage, particularly post-harvest pests such as weevils.
“Apart from advising traditional leaders to guard against traders with non-trade scales, we will embark on a sweeping exercise along with police and MBS officers,” says Makanga.
The sorry sight of farmers who have harvested well being skinned by unscrupulous traders with outlawed weighing equipment is not only confined to Phalombe and its neighbouring districts—Mulanje, Thyolo and Chiradzulu—but also common along both the upland and lakeshore roads between Blantyre and Mzuzu which regulators, law enforcers and policymakers often travel. The blatantly affected districts include Mwanza, Balaka, Ntcheu, Dedza, Lilongwe, Dowa, Kasungu, Mzimba, Nkhata Bay, Nkhotakota and Salima. But the spectacle could be a signal of a widespread problem that might not have spared remote localities in Ntchisi, Rumphi, Karonga, Chitipa, Mwanza and Neno.
While the people in Phalombe are waiting for the sweeping exercise to get rid of the scales that impoverish them and make their households food insecure, government seems stuck in a culture of doing business as usual—issuing warnings and bans which they often fail to enforce.
The old way of tackling early symptoms of food crises came anew during the harvest season when the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security issued its routine communiqués, outlawing exportation of maize, unregistered traders and illegal scales forthwith.
As early as 1987, the country adopted the General Agricultural Purposes Act which requires all buyers of farm produce to obtain permits from the Agriculture Ministry. Likewise, all traders are supposed to be registered with the Ministry of Trade. Most importantly, the Metrological Act, currently under review, requires the traders to use MBS-certified scales.
But rather than turning the word of the law into action, the Ministry of Agriculture could only make a low-key appeal to the blameworthy buyers to ensure their scales are assized by the bureau of standards and local councils to observe that legitimate traders are operating in the areas.
When the force of the law is suppressed to pave the way for rhetorical face -savers, lawlessness take over.
The tragic aftermaths of government’s failure to take decisive steps to rid farming zones of menacing scales and unlawful farmers was clear just a week before the World Metrological Day when the bureau of standards confiscated 60 scales at Balaka Town alone.
Balaka Police spokesperson Joseph Sauka affirms that while the illegal scales are a common sight, the law enforcers will only know the extent of the problem and intervene if people are aware of their rights and start reporting abuses to police.
Kampake says until government stumps its authorities on people who defraud farmers and create hunger by hoarding maize for export, the growers will continue grappling with hunger because it is their easiest way of cashing in on their yield.