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Sunflowers instead of tobacco – support for Malawi’s farmers

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16.02.2016 – The Government of Malawi is keen to reduce the country’s economic dependence on tobacco and improve food security – with GIZ’s support.

For Malawi, a small country in South-East Africa, tobacco is both a blessing and a curse. The ‘green gold’ is its most important export crop, beating tea and sugar into second and third place. 90 per cent of Malawi’s 17 million people depend on agriculture, but there is a heavy reliance on manual labour and productivity is low. As a result, agriculture generates just 40 per cent of the country’s GDP. In years with good harvests, tobacco exporting is a lucrative business, but the plants are fragile and highly vulnerable to drought, which sometimes destroys the entire crop. The price of tobacco on the world market also fluctuates considerably. In short, tobacco growing – like tea planting, a relic of British colonial rule – is no longer a safe investment.

Recognising the problems, the Government of Malawi is determined to reduce the country’s dependence on tobacco. Diversification is the goal. Growing soya, peanuts, sunflowers and cassava in addition to tobacco gives farmers access to other sources of income, enabling them to feed their families even in years with poor tobacco harvests. It also improves food security for the country as a whole, for switching from tobacco frees up land for growing food, especially when combined with effective crop rotation to preserve soil fertility.

GIZ is assisting Malawi to achieve its national development goals by promoting the cultivation of oilseeds and cassava. To that end, GIZ is cooperating with various agricultural training providers: for example, it has revised the curriculum for the Agricultural Research and Extension Trust, which trains 120 students a year to advise smallholders across the country on how to grow sunflowers, peanuts and soya in addition to tobacco. GIZ has provided resources for the Trust’s library and is currently renovating its premises and setting up a laboratory and two oil presses. Demonstration fields are being established and equipped with an irrigation system.

These activities are part of the One World, No Hunger special initiative launched by the project’s commissioning party, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). Over the next two years alone, 20,000 smallholder households will benefit from the green innovation centres in Malawi and from other programmes. They include an initiative which aims to boost value added through the processing of cassava and oilseeds into finished products. Cassava, a tuber, is an important source of starch and can be processed into highly nutritious flour. However, cassava processing has generally taken place outside Malawi, despite the high local demand for this product. GIZ is also facilitating contacts between former tobacco farmers and oil-processing firms, which supply farmers with seeds and guarantee to purchase their crop for at least the market price. At present, there is underproduction of soya and sunflowers in Malawi and overcapacity in its processing industry, so the aim is to address this deficit.

Malawi’s farmers are on track towards more sustainability and higher productivity. This is a positive step, for with annual per capita income of just 230 euros, Malawi is still one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world.