Malawi projected a maize surplus of almost 355 000 tonnes last year, but about two million people require food aid until the next harvest.
As government struggles to deliver affordable grain across the country, desperate crowds are elbowing each other to buy cheap grain from Prophet Shepherd Bushiri based in South Africa.
From vendors pushing for supernormal profits to needy families outrun by skyrocketing food prices, the fierce scrambles make it difficult to buy the grain more than a third of the selling price at the market.
Last week, Mercy Chabwera, who single-handedly raises four children and a grandfather with disability in Nyezelera, Phalombe, walked about two hours to buy a 25kg bag from the flamboyant prophet’s team at Migowi Trading Centre.
“It’s a rare chance to buy a 25kg bag at once,” she says. “Admarc, [the State-owned Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation], mostly has no maize. In the unlikely event that maize is in stock, we spend the whole day in a nasty scramble just to buy no more than 10 kilogrammes.”
Maize rationing by Admarc has left food insecure people paying exorbitant prices. At Migowi, a kilogramme costs K360—almost four times what Chabwera used to pay last March.
“Maize prices have grown wings. When I heard about the cheap maize, I didn’t hesitate to come and grab a bag that will take us almost three weeks. By then, the green maize will be ready for harvesting,” says Chabwera.
People in the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) stronghold say government’s response has been slow and scanty. They want the State to improve the replenishment and distribution of its maize stocks in readiness for hunger.
To them, it is puzzling why Admarc seems to be caught unawares by chronic food emergency even though the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (Mvac) alerts that 1.8 million poor Malawians require food aid in the prevailing lean period.
“Government hasn’t done enough to fulfill its promise to ensure no one dies of hunger. We are starving with money in our pockets,” says Esnat Bwanawe, from Kaduya Village near Migowi.
She recounts the pain of going home empty-handed after spending all day in a lengthy queue for maize.
She states: “We didn’t reap much because of erratic rains, so we have been buying maize since the 2019 harvesting season.
“When Admarc supplies the grain, people escaping ridiculous food prices on the open market jostle for 10kg rations, but the weak go home without a grain. As such, they go back to vendors cashing in on the food crisis.”
Bwanawe sold a bundle of firewood from a fast-disappearing forest to raise money for buying a 25kg bag. She thanks Bushiri for the “near-zero” maize price, saying blessed is the hand that gives.
“We are paying a huge price to opportunistic vendors who buy our meagre harvest for a song using adjustable scales. They are selling our produce at a higher price while we endure shoves, fistfights and injuries in Admarc depots,” she says.
For five years, Bushiri has been distributing maize free of charge to hungry Malawians.
His spokesperson Ephraim Nyondo says the new meagre price is more than just a security precaution against disruptive scrambles.
“We have a lot of maize to distribute, but we are selling to people who have money but cannot find maize because we don’t want more people to slide into vulnerability band captured by Mvac,” he states.
The exercise got off with 50kg bags, but has since been trimmed to 25kg to check vendors hijacking the humanitarian support.
“Food is a basic need and we have to do anything to ensure people have it despite the crazy market price. So, it’s the same humanitarian Bushiri trying to send a message that people can struggle to buy cars, but shouldn’t when it comes to food,” says Nyondo.
The prophet has delivered truckloads of maize in Ntchisi, Salima, Mangochi, Mzimba and Balaka in what his publicist terms “the flipside of giving free maize”.
He says: “We have sold thousands of bags, but have no money in our pockets. It all goes into costs.”
But Chabwera is happy that her family is no longer starving. Four years ago, she was a laughingstock because her last-born child was stunted. Nearly 37 percent of Malawian children aged under five experiences the low-height-for-age sign of malnutrition. She says: “When hunger strikes, I fear for children. In 2016, I endured scorn when my daughter was under nutritional rehabilitation at Migowi Health Centre.”