A number of factors, including a poor harvest in 2000/01, very low levels of maize stocks, rapidly rising food prices, a generally late start to the rains needed for planting, flooding in several districts and a dry spell in early 2002, pointed to a developing food crisis in Malawi.
Serious maize shortages developed towards the end of 2001 and first three months of 2002.
Maize production is estimated at 1.539 million metric tonnes, 10 percent less than last year's poor harvest. The actual harvest is expected to be lower because of widespread early consumption of green maize to avert hunger.
Cereal supply is estimated at 1.721 million tonnes against a national requirement of 2.206 million tonnes, leaving an import requirement of 485,000 tonnes.
As a result commercial cereal imports are forecast at 225,000 tonnes and food aid at 208,000 tonnes, which need to be covered by the Government and external assistance.
At the peak of the crisis and as the lean season advances, approximately 3.2 million seriously affected people will need emergency food, mainly maize (see 'Hunger timetable: Malawi' box)
The Government of Malawi declared a state of national disaster at the end of February.
The strategic grain reserve of 167,000 tonnes, established in 1999 following bumper crops, was released both domestically and for export between mid-2000 and early 2001, at a time when indications pointed to a possible poor harvest.
According to the Mission, the mismanagement of the reserve, which created a scarcity of maize in ADMARC outlets, and the dramatic price increases played a critical role in the humanitarian crisis last year.
Maize is the preferred staple of most Malawians (80% of the diet); a lack of maize is generally interpreted as a lack of food.
Cassava and sweet potato production is growing steadily and traditional maize-eating populations are eating more cassava.
Emergency provision of maize and bean seed, fertilizer and hoes is recommended to help farmers cultivate a winter crop in May/June in the wetlands, as well as prepare for the main planting season in Oct/Nov.
National production of roots and tubers has increased, which will moderate the maize shortage in many areas.
Agriculture generates more than 90 percent of export earnings, mainly from tobacco, and 30-40% of the GNP.
During the 2000/01 season, the distribution of seeds and fertilizers was drastically reduced due to financial constraints. Low maize production in many areas was because of a shortage of seeds - retained seed is often eaten after a poor season.
Large numbers of livestock were sold at greatly reduced prices when food shortages were extreme from early 2002, as families were desperate for cash to buy maize and other food.
From August 2001, maize prices rose sharply - a reflection of the serious maize shortage and slow arrival of imports. Price increases severely curtailed access to food by a large section of the population.
Hunger timetable: Malawi
People in need of food aid
Dec 02-Mar 03
Total food aid needed:
207,687 metric tonnes
How is the crisis affecting the people of Malawi?
From December until the next harvest, most rural farmers must buy maize on the market, as household supplies have been exhausted.
Last year, most farmers had to start purchasing from Oct/Nov, when cash is scarce, at very high prices.
Reliance on the markets is expected to begin even earlier this year.
Current maize prices are still 60 percent above the price this time last year.
It is feared that even the minimum commercial price in 2002 will be beyond what the poorest 50 percent of the population can afford.
More than 65 percent of Malawians live below the poverty line, making it one of the poorest countries in the world.
Malawi is a land-locked country, with poor infrastructure connecting it to major ports. This has a direct effect on commodity availability and prices.
More than 80 percent of Malawians are directly engaged in agricultural activities for their main livelihoods.
However plot sizes are very small, fertile land for small-scale farming is limited, and farming systems are basic. The percentage of cropland under maize is disproportionately high (75 percent) considering its drought prone nature.
Very high rates of chronic stunting and malnutrition.
Very high prevalence of HIV/AIDS (19.5 percent average).
Direct linkages between household food security and HIV/AIDS, including loss of able-bodied labour and income, increased expenditure on health care and funerals, adoption of orphans by the elderly, child-headed households.
HIV/AIDS will continue to have a severe effect on rural Malawian's food security.
There was a humanitarian crisis last year due to low production and extremely high maize prices, leaving many farmers without enough food, particularly from Nov-April.
Malnutrition rates soared and there were some deaths due to lack of food and stretching of coping capacities. As a result, farmers are entering the coming year in a very precarious state; successive years of stress will compound food insecurity in the next 12 months.
It is expected that the number of people searching for casual labour/piece-meal work, will increase, leading to a decline in both opportunities and the daily payment rates.
Some farmers who normally employ others to work on their farms, have had to seek labor opportunities themselves.
Rampant theft of cassava and maize has been widely reported, which has a negative effect on social cohesion and community trust, as well as long term food security.
Goat prices dropped from the normal price of 400 MK to 150 MK last year.
Livestock sales are indicative of stress; the sale of livestock to meet food needs in one year, leaves less for potential sale in a successive stress year, eg the evolving 2001/2 scenario.
Other households have sold assets like cooking materials, farm tools, etc. In some parts of the country, there has been out migration from one district to another as people searched for work or food.
Skipping meals or eating unknown, sometimes poisonous wild roots, have also been widely reported.
ll these negative/distress coping strategies can be expected over the coming year without major humanitarian assistance.
WFP has had an emergency operation in Malawi since February 2001, which started as a response to the floods.
Assistance for flood victims suffering from subsequent crop loss continued throughout last year, and into 2002.
In March 2002, WFP was already helping 300,000 people affected by severe food shortages.
Food from development projects was used as a part of the response.
For example, this included food aid for vulnerable groups of people, including malnourished mothers and children, attending nutritional rehabilitation centers in hospitals.
In May, while awaiting the results of the food/crop assessment missions, WFP approved a US$3.1 million emergency operation to increase the number of people with food aid for the next 4 months.
This operation bridges the period until the new regional southern Africa emergency operation is launched in early July.