Malawi farmers struggle to feed families

Written by Carol Garrison, Special Field Reporter,
The Nakambas own a small plot of land, totaling less than two acres. They harvested their main crops last July and have since run out of food to feed their family. They are now in what Malawians call the "lean season" or the "hungry season," and Eunice says she will soon be forced to beg for food from neighbors in order to survive.

Often, Eunice says, they go to sleep without eating. When possible, she and her husband perform "ganyu," a common coping technique among Malawians during the hungry season. Ganyu is casual labor, usually agricultural work, performed in exchange for cash or food. In this way, the households with more resources help support those who have run out of food. It's a type of community safety net that has existed in Malawi for generations. But during recent years, even households that are relatively better off are showing signs of vulnerability.

Food For Work Projects Ease Hunger, Build Community

Recently, rather than working in her fields or those of her neighbors, Eunice has been helping to rehabilitate one of the community's roads. She is one of more than 1,700 people in Chitipa participating in a Food for Work (FFW) project implemented by the Malawi Red Cross Society (MRCS) with resources from the World Food Program (WFP). Eunice finds the program preferable to ganyu -- for a month's worth of work (20 working days of four hours a day) each participant receives a household ration of 50 kg of maize and 5 kg of beans.

In addition to helping individual households maintain a level of food security, the program helps to create a community asset. The road Eunice is working on connects her small community to the main market area of the region. In addition to expanding economic opportunities by making it easier and cheaper for farmers to transport their products to market, it also connects rural residents to vital services such as the health centers.

Reasons behind Malawi's food insecurity are myriad and complex. Most recently two consecutive years of drought have hit already struggling households hard. The adverse climatic conditions during the previous two growing seasons plunged Malawi into one of the worst food security crises the country has experienced in more than 60 years. At the peak of the crisis it was estimated that 30 percent of the population needed emergency food assistance. Although last season's rains were better, households are still struggling to recover from the two previous seasons of drought.

Rising HIV/AIDS rates have also taken their toll on rural households. In Malawi, the disease strikes those who are in their most productive years -- people aged 15-49. The prevalence rate for adults is 15 percent -- one of the highest in the world, and it is the leading cause of death among the reproductive aged population in Malawi.

The impact of the disease has been catastrophic, resulting in a significant increase in the number of premature deaths and a decline in life expectancy to an average of 37 years. As the adults become sick and die, communities are left with households made up of only the elderly and children. An estimated 70,000 children are orphaned each year as a result of the loss of one or both parents in Malawi. In the past, orphans would be taken care of by relatives and other family members, but due to the large number of deaths this traditional form of a social safety net has become strained to its breaking point.

The result is a large number of elderly headed households with numerous dependents or orphan headed households were children are forced to survive on their own. If the elderly are unable to work in the fields, then the children in the household will be taken out school to help support the family. Girls in particular are removed from school so they can stay home and take care of sick relatives. As the disease takes its toll, more and more of their already meager household income must go to pay for medical expenses and funerals.

Finding an End to "Inzala"

If you ask the residents here why they chose to participate in the Food for Work program, you will hear the same response. Often it is uttered quietly under the breath and sometimes in unison by a group of people. What they say is "inzala" which literally translated means starving. It is hard to imagine when surrounded by such a verdant landscape that there could be a food shortage. But the truth is that in most years the farmers here are unable to produce enough to feed themselves and their families.

Poor agricultural practices and a lack of irrigation combined with a lack of inputs (fertilizer, seeds) and erratic rain fall make it difficult for households to produce enough food. Victoria Nyondo is the MRCS food monitor for Chitipa. She explains that despite the relatively abundant rainfall, there is no irrigation in most places. Additionally farmers are unable to purchase critical inputs such as fertilizer and high quality seeds.

In the past such inputs were subsidized by the government meaning even the poorest farmers could afford to purchase agricultural inputs. With a change of government in 1994, Malawi embarked on a policy of economic liberalization. As a result, the agricultural subsidies which farmers had been receiving for decades were discontinued. The farmers who had grown dependent on these subsidized inputs were left without recourse. In the interim, as people learn to survive in the new economy, projects like Food for Work are critical. Victoria explains in the simplest terms, "Projects like this help the people because without them they would have nothing."

Malawi Red Cross has been helping vulnerable households to regain their food security since the food crisis began in spring of 2002. During the peak of the food crisis, the MRCS with the support of the American Red Cross and WFP was helping to feed 40,000 households or approximately 250,000 people per month. Although the food crisis has officially ended, MRCS continues to assist food insecure households. Through the Food for Work program, MRCS is assisting 4,206 households in two districts. The MRCS also provides food distributions to households affected by HIV/AIDS including those supporting orphans.


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