Malawi + 2 more

Fighting off famine in Southern Africa

Situation Report
Originally published
Eastern and Southern Africa and Europe
"No child should die from famine in the 21st century. We must use all the lessons learnt from the mass hunger of the past to stop Southern Africa from starving." David Muthungu, Regional Director, Plan Eastern and Southern Africa.

The spectre of starvation is looming over Southern Africa, with six countries already facing serious food shortages. The development organisation Plan fears that the situation could escalate to catastrophic proportions by September this year. It warns that starvation on the scale seen in Somalia during the 90s and Ethiopia in the 80s will strike again if the food supply is not dramatically increased now.

More than 20 million people, almost half the population, in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Lesotho and Swaziland are facing critical food shortages. The UN has calculated that the region now has a shortfall of 3.5 million tonnes of maize.

For much of the population, their chances of surviving famine are bleak. In Zambia almost three quarters of the population live on less than a dollar a day and even in Zimbabwe a third live below that poverty line. Children are amongst the most vulnerable, especially if they are already sick or under-fed. In Malawi, almost half the children are already malnourished and one in five dies before reaching its fifth birthday.


The food shortage has been building for three years. Bad weather and poor policy decisions are the main culprits. Cyclone Eline, destroyed crops in 1999. The floods were followed by two years of drought, so harvests have never recovered. The crisis has been worsened by an acute shortfall of maize reserves across the whole region. In previous years there have always been supplies that governments and aid agencies in the region could buy in from neighbouring countries in times of trouble. But the current crisis sees nearby countries such as South Africa unable to cope with demand, driving prices higher. Moreover, the HIV/AIDS crisis in the region has hit productivity. Throughout the region millions of adults are infected and cannot grow their own food. In Zimbabwe, a quarter of the population has HIV/AIDS and is unable to fully contribute to food production.


Experts predict that the situation is set to worsen within a matter of weeks. Currently, only a fraction of the extra food needed is coming into the affected countries. Even if enough food can be brought into the region between now and Christmas, the fear is that only half of it would get to where it is needed. This is because there are not enough large trucks and cargo trains to take all the food to regional centres, and there is a shortage of suitable smaller trucks to get the food along the bumpy dirt tracks to where it is needed

Plan's Southern Africa famine programme

Plan, one of the world's largest child centred development organisations, is helping famine-hit communities to survive in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia. The charity works at grass roots level and has more than forty years experience of working with the poorest communities in developing countries. Plan fears that the food shortage will start to become critical as soon as September. Its strategy is to try and avoid history repeating itself. It does not want to see yet another major famine hitting Africa because not enough was done to save the situation before it was too late.

Plan's primary approach is to help communities by working with them on development projects lasting up to a decade. The aim is bring about the kind of security that can be sustained by the community after the project ends. However, because of its long-term connections to grass-roots organisations and intimate knowledge of local communities, Plan is also able to intervene and join other agencies with effective and well targeted disaster relief when a major emergency arises. Plan's current food programme in Zimbabwe is an example of this.

Relief for Zimbabwe

Plan supports poor communities, most of which live on land with irregular rainfall, in seven districts of South-east Zimbabwe. With a current caseload of 51,000 supported families and an additional 25,000 families also receiving the benefits of the community development projects, Plan is one of the biggest child centred development organisations operating in the country.

Plan Zimbabwe is running a temporary relief programme to save the more than 70,000 high-risk families from starvation. Over the next six months the organisation will purchase and distribute up to 20,000 tonnes of maize meal in addition to other supplementary food. Each family will receive 50 kilos of maize and two kilos of kapenta fish per month. The agency will also give rations of ground nuts and cooking oil to those most at risk of starvation.

As well as existing supported families, Plan will be targeting orphans and families caring for them, disabled and elderly people, pregnant and breast-feeding women, as well as destitute people.

At the same time Plan has been conducting long-term sustainable food security projects that will help communities in Zimbabwe achieve self-sufficiency. Similar projects are also underway in Zambia and Malawi. They are designed to protect countries from food crises such as the current one, but were not enough to prevent the overwhelming food shortages that have hit the countries of Southern Africa.

Despair in Zambia

In Zambia, Plan calculates that the population of the Mazabuka and Chadiza districts, where the charity works will need emergency food relief to survive the next nine months. With maize harvests down by as much as two thirds, Plan field staff report that many families are selling whatever assets they have left and abandoning their plots in search of low-paid work on coffee plantations or commercial farms.

Plan has found that female and child-headed households are surviving on a meal every two days or depending on handouts from friends and relatives. Children are dropping out of school because their families have no money for school fees or they have to go in search of food.

Teenagers in Salati village in Zambia's Chadiza district can no longer attend lessons. "There is no way I can go to school when I have not eaten anything and have no hope of finding anything to eat in the next few days," says one of them.

Fast-food for lasting results

In Zambia, Plan has been helping local people to plant and raise fast-growing food crops. One scheme provides participating farmers with loans of a fast-growing, high-yield variety of peanut seeds. Compared with local varieties, the crop matures early and is easy to harvest. To date participating farmers have had very successful harvests and the 20 kilos of seed they must repay will be loaned to more farmers. This low-cost scheme is set to help more and more families back to self-sufficiency as well as to provide protein-rich food for hungry children.

In Chadiza the charity will be giving small irrigation hand-pumps to local farmers so that they can plant vegetables and winter maize. This will allow them to grow crops they would not normally be able to raise, providing food as well as a cash income. In Mazabuka, Plan is introducing a livestock re-stocking programme to help farmers replace herds that have been lost to disease

Malnutrition in Malawi

In Malawi Plan is helping the very poor districts of Lilongwe, Ksununga and Mzimba where more than half the children have stunted growth as a result of malnutrition. Plan is providing emergency food aid to more than 22 thousand of the most needy families. The charity monitors distribution to ensure that food does not go missing. The food is distributed directly to women and children to help guarantee that it goes into the homes and not the market-place.

Once again, as in Zimbabwe, Plan's long-term food-security strategy is ongoing and long-term, even while the immediate concern is to feed the hungry.

Part of this strategy is to introduce new high-yield crops such as soya beans, fruit and vegetables as well as high yielding varieties of maize and peanuts. It is introducing water conservation techniques to help shorten the hunger season. The agency has also encouraged families to try raising animals and it has brought in grain mills and seed presses to help families earn a cash income.

Media Information

Field visits

Plan can host media visits to its projects in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. The charity's country offices will provide transport and interpreters (subject to availability). In Zambia Plan can facilitate access to case studies like:

Schoolchildren who go for days on end without food and had to abandon their education because they are too hungry to study,Rona Namode, a nurse in charge of a local clinic, who reports a sharp increase in child mortality as a result of severe food shortages.

Village headman Chasoka Banda, whose harvest has failed. As well as his own children, Mr Banda's 74 year-old mother and twelve village orphans depend on him. These include two of his grandchildren whose parents died of AIDS.

Kennedy Kanenga of the Msenkera Research Station in Chipata, who has helped introduce new fast-growing varieties of crops into the region.

Plan staff in Zimbabwe and Malawi can facilitate similar interviews and field trips.


Plan staff in and returning from the famine-affected areas are available to speak to the media.

More information

For more materials or to get in touch with Plan staff in the field contact Magda Walter, Head of Global Media Relations at Plan in the UK at :44-1483-733-285 or email