MZUZU, 1 March 2013 (IRIN) - Every morning, Bernadette Kilembe, from the northern Malawian town of Karonga, is confronted with two related problems: She has to keep her restaurant running, and she has to feed herself and her three children.
Exacerbating both of these problems is the cost of maize - Malawi's staple food - which has become unaffordable.
Between June and October 2012, a 20-litre bucket of maize cost her between 500 and 750 kwacha (about US$1.50 to $2). Now it costs 3,000 kwacha ($8) a bucket.
"That is only enough to produce two meals for me and my children," said Kilembe.
In a good year, Kilembe grows enough maize in her garden to supply her restaurant and feed her family, but dry spells during the 2011-2012 growing season wilted her crop. Unreliable rainfall is nothing new in Malawi, but in the past, Kilembe could purchase affordable maize from local vendors. This year things are different.
During and after the 2012 harvest, cross-border traders offered farmers in the area much better prices than those offered by local traders.
"Most of the farmers here thought if they sold their maize and kept the money, they would be able to buy from the market once the maize they stored for their own consumption was depleted," said Masuzgo Zowani, a community worker and subsistence farmer from Chirambo, in western Rumphi District.
"Unfortunately, they did not know that they were creating a gap in the supply of maize both in their area and the country generally because those who offered the better prices took the maize out of the country. Now they can hardly afford the maize that is found on the market."
A ban on the export of maize from Malawi was implemented in December 2011, when it became apparent dry weather threatened to cause a maize shortage.
But the ban has not prevented traders from smuggling maize across the border into neighbouring Tanzania and Mozambique, where the weakening of the kwacha against the dollar has made Malawi's maize attractive to buyers.
"When trucks bring bags of maize here [from surrounding areas], it is not meant for our market," said Kilembe. "We don't know where it goes, as the maize often comes late in the evening when we are about to sleep and it is not [there] by daybreak."
Dan Msowoya, a spokesperson from the opposition party the Alliance for Democracy, blamed the boom in cross-border trade on the state-owned grain marketer, the Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC). In recent years, ADMARC has not received sufficient budgetary support to buy surplus maize from farmers, store it and then resell it, leaving the task in the hands of a private conglomerate called Mulli Brothers.
But farmers complained that Mulli Brothers did not offer them good prices, and as a result, many sold their maize instead to cross-border traders, not even keeping a portion of the crop for consumption.
Government officials are now urging communities to stop selling maize to cross-border traders, regardless of the prices they offer, but the message seems to have come too late.
Efforts by local police to stop the smuggling of maize into Tanzania have been largely unsuccessful.
"When we increased manpower on land and impounded trucks carrying maize, the smugglers started transporting the maize on bicycles, and it would appear as if it belonged to an individual who was taking it home," said Karonga police station officer William Kadzayekha.
"But once we busted that, they started smuggling the maize in boats via Lake Malawi and connecting to Songwe River. We know that they are doing this, but we cannot do anything. We have officers who trained as marine experts, but there are no boats for these officers to use."
Many local people in Karonga blame the police for letting maize pass through roadblocks, allegedly in return for bribes.
"We have a number of roadblocks from Karonga to the Songwe border post. Police are manning these roadblocks, yet food crops such as maize continue to cross the borders. One wonders how this could happen if it is not [that] the police have pocketed bribes," said paramount chief Kyungu, the most senior traditional authority in Karonga and Chitipa districts.
Locals have engaged the police in battles over the issue, even chasing them from roadblocks. But while this may have slowed the movement of maize by truck, it has not affected transport by boat. On a recent night, IRIN witnessed maize being loaded onto boats on Lake Malawi just a few hundred metres from the Karonga police station.
Supply and demand
Malawian cross-border businesspersons buying goods in Tanzania for resale in Malawi have also reported seeing huge piles of maize at the Tanzanian border town of Kasumulu. It is believed that the maize is repackaged there for transportation further on in the region.
"The maize piles we see there are usually more than what we see on the Malawian side," said Grace Kumwenda, who buys wares in Mbeya, Tanzania, and sells them in Mzuzu.
Economist Henry Kachanje says the rising market cost of maize is simple supply and demand: As more maize is smuggled out of the country, supply in the Malawian market dwindles and prices go up.
Currently, most ADMARC markets across the country do not have maize stocks. When limited stocks do come in, they are rationed; the amounts sold are as little as 5kg per person.
The government's 2012 decision last year to replace fuel price subsidies with automatic fuel price adjustments - in which the cost automatically reflects global price fluctuations - has resulted in record high fuel costs, which private traders of maize are also transferring to consumers.