Malawi: Bumper harvest expected again this year

LILONGWE, 26 April 2007 (IRIN) - Farmers in Malawi are attributing the abundant harvest they are looking forward to - a total of 3.2 million metric tonnes of maize this year - to a combination of good rains and subsidised fertiliser, although there are still remaining pockets of vulnerability.

"What the government did - to reduce fertiliser [prices] to enable the poor buy cheap fertiliser - has increased food production. It is my sincere hope that government will continue implementing the programme, so that Malawi does not suffer from hunger any longer," said Amos Banda, a farmer on the outskirts of the capital, Lilongwe.

The government has also attributed the high maize production to subsidised fertiliser, which was sold to farmers at 950 kwacha [about US$6.50] per 50kg bag; in 2004 the price was around K4,000 [about US$27] per 50kg bag.

With a 22 percent increase over last year's production - 73 percent higher than the average for the last five years, according to government estimates - Malawi's agricultural sector seems to be recovering after a drought in 2005 left almost five million people in need of food aid.

Banda said that working hard "is the only solution to deal with persistent hunger in our households. We have had good rains in the past few years, but good rainfall without farm inputs and hard work cannot produce better crop yields."

Joana Kambale, another farmer, praised the government for reducing the cost of fertiliser but suggested that the most poverty-stricken people be given fertiliser free of charge.

"Some of us are keeping orphans, and to raise money to feed the children and buy fertiliser is not easy. However, I have to be thankful to government for the reduction, but free fertiliser to the poor would be helpful," she said.

Despite forecasts of a good harvest throughout the country, a maize shortage is expected in Karonga district, in the Northern part of Malawi, after a lack of rain in February.

Nevertheless, the farmers have proven resilient. "Although we may not harvest enough maize from this area, we still believe we can survive by growing winter crops. What most people would like, however, is the support from government. We need to irrigate our crops and we can only succeed if we have proper equipment," said Daniel Mwagomba, a farmer in Karonga.

An estimated 65 percent of Malawi's 12 million people live below the poverty line, so the vast majority cannot afford irrigation equipment. The government has said it would distribute about 400 treadle pumps - a simple and inexpensive human-powered pump - but farmers in most areas have not yet received them.

Deputy Minister of Agriculture Binton Kuntsaira said there were no plans to discontinue the government's subsidy programme. "Due to high maize ... production last year, government has allowed traders to sell their crops outside Malawi. This year we expect more from our farmers, and this is what the government wants. People must be able to feed themselves."