Malawi’s economy is largely agro-based, meaning that as a country, we depend on agriculture for our livelihoods, money, and national development. We have known this fact for decades. It is, therefore, surprising that we have not invested in the sector as much we need to.
By this year, our 57th year of Independence, we should have mechanised and automated our agriculture. Most of the land tilling, seed planting, fertiliser application, harvesting, shelling and packaging should have been taken over by farm machinery. That is what other countries, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Rwanda are doing.
In Rwanda, smallholder farmers have been organised in cooperatives and can access bank loans for their farming activities as a group. They can also market their products as a group. And repay their loans as a group.
By this year, our 57th year of Independence, we should have had a robust chemical fertiliser production plant that should have been producing fertilisers for local and international markets. That we don’t produce fertilisers locally is shocking, but not surprising. That we still rely on imported fertilisers and cry about fertiliser cartels hoarding fertiliser is disappointing, but not surprising.
It is not surprising because those planning subsidy programmes make a kill from the cartel through kickbacks. If the cost of farm inputs was not subsided or subsidised universally as John Tembo had once proposed, the hoarding would not have been there; the ‘cartelling’ would not be there because there would nothing to hoard as fertilisers would be available in all agro-dealer shops at standard prices.
It is not surprising because, if you are not too young, you will recall that in 2006 or thereabouts, president kaNgwazi Bingu wa Mutharika, started constructing a fertiliser production factory in Lilongwe. Despite the ululation and excitement that accompanied the beginning of the fertiliser manufacturing plant construction, the factory was abandoned by kaNgwazi himself. Why? You guessed right—cartels convinced kaNgwazi to abandon the idea. Bingu died in 2012. Since then three presidents have ruled Malawi and all three have not been interested in local manufacturing of fertilisers.
We don’t know why, but we can guess that the strong fertiliser importer and resale cartel is dishing out opportunities benefitting directly or indirectly the people who offer licenses and run the subsidy programmes.
As Walt Whitman Rostow argued in his much criticized, but still valuable economic model, agriculture has been the springboard of most economies. Development of agriculture through mechanisation led to agriculture-based industrialisation where the agriculture output was value-added. Urbanisation quickly followed around those agriculture industries. Then energy and mineral exploration followed.
That is what most of the literature says about how China, India, Australia, etc took off to where they today are.
We have many examples all over the developed and developing world of how agriculture led to development. Why do we not start investing massively in agriculture to mechanise it and develop industries and towns around it? Why are we pleased to see the rural poor struggling to till the land with hoe and slasher, plant seed, weed the fields, and harvest by hand the small amounts they sell to us, who sit phwii in towns and offices planning how Malawi’s agriculture should fail?
In short, Malawi’s agriculture cannot grow and become the green gold that we dream it to be because we are not investing enough in it. We are not mechanising it enough. We are not manufacturing the core input into the soil: fertiliser. We are not building small agriculture industries that should be adding value to our rice, maize, avocado, guava, cassava, tobacco, and tea production. Continuing to market and export raw agriculture material is tantamount to investing in economic failure.