The wait has been long for the farmers to plant their seeds. This year, delayed rains made farmers question whether they would have good harvests, since most of them rely on rainfall.
Usually, by November Malawi gets its first rains and farmers planted their maize. But this year’s experience may lead to a change in the pattern of the growing period. The department of climate change and meteorological services (DoCCMS) links the delayed rainfall to climate change.
Principal agriculture meteorologist at the DoCCMS, Adams Chavula says: “This year’s rains have indeed delayed. Our growing season begins in November and by the end of the month, the rains are everywhere. We did not foresee this [delay] and we were expecting that by last month, the country would be receiving normal rains,” says Chavula.
Nonetheless, with some partial rains that fell in some parts of Malawi last week, DoCCMS is optimistic that by end of December, the rains will be normal.
“The forecast shows that most parts of the country will be receiving strong rainfall that will continue as usual,” explains Chavula.
This year’s unpredictable rainfall is not unusual. Chavula says although the cause of the rains delay in the past five years vary, climate change is the main contributing factor. He says this year’s delay has been experienced in some parts of Zambia, South Africa and Mozambique.
“For us to receive the rains, we rely on the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) and the Congo air mass. These have not been reaching Malawi and other parts of southern Africa. What is happening is that there has been intense heating and this has created a rain belt. This is like a ridge and it is blocking the winds,” explains Chavula.
But what implications does this delay have on agricultural-dependent Malawians?
Rain delay has a negative bearing on the country’s economy, which is agro-based. About 40 percent of the country’s economy is from agriculture, including tobacco, maize, tea, sugar and others. Maize is not just grown for commercial purposes, it is also a staple food.
Malawi’s normal maize growing season runs from November to January, but due to persistent rain delays over the past few years, most farmers harvests between February and April, a development which the DoCCMS says affects the quality of crops and yield because they are grown outside the growing season.
Again, late rains in some previous year’s have come violently and cause damage to crops.
The staple grain is also the main driver of inflation. It contributes about 50.2 percent to the consumer price index (CPI), a measure that examines average prices of consumer goods and services. This means a further delay of the rains affect crop production and therefore, can raise inflation and commodity prices later.
Chavula says it is too early to lose hope. He says there will be enough rains although the onset has been late, as has been the case in previous years. He, however, says the solution is to adopt a second plan, which is adaptation to short growing seasons, that means farmers have to start planting early maturing seeds.
His suggestions are based on the fact that the delay in rains does not extend the growing season, which means only those that plant seeds with a maturing age of less than 90 days can achieve better harvests.
Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Dr Allan Chiyembekeza is also at ease. He says although rains have been unpredictable, when they come, they are reliable, which enables farmers to harvest as usual. He says his office always advises farmers to use early maturing seeds.
“It is true that rains have been unpredictable, but we cannot make a decision or formulate a policy if DoCCMS does not tell us about the rainfall trends,” says Chiyembekeza.
Dalitso Kubalasa, executive director for Malawi Economic Justice Network (Mejn) warns that issues to do with erratic rains and climate change should not be played down because they affect agriculture, which is the backbone of the country’s economy. He says there is need to plan ahead in case one of the future years brings a serious dry spell.
However, Kubalasa says there is no permanent solution at the moment than putting in more effort to reduce the impact of climate change and ensure annual harvests are intact so that inflation is not affected.
On the long term plan, he says there is need to come up with policies that guard the economy from the shock arising from unforeseen circumstances that bring direct impact to crucial areas that support the national economy such as agriculture.
“It is time we promoted growing of early maturing crops, crop diversification, research and extension and irrigation farming. Let us have a policy that ensures everyone plants at least a tree per year and control deforestation so that we can win the climate change battle and enjoy good rains as before,” says Kubalasa.
He advises farmers to work directly with agriculture extension officers and follow weather forecasts by DoCCMS to make informed decisions.