Blog Post

Hunger in Malawi: The El Niño Effect

The El Niño phenomenon, occurring on average ever 2-7 years, often causes reduced precipitation and drier-than-average weather in Malawi. These conditions in return result in poor agricultural conditions and reduced harvests. A new project paper from the Malawi Strategy Support Program examines the extent of El Niño’s effects on agriculture and identifies pathways to mitigate the subsequent impacts on hunger levels in the country.

According to the report, in El Niño years, Malawi’s maize harvest is around 2.6 million tons on average—22.5 percent smaller than that seen in “normal” years, and nearly one-quarter below the annual amount consumed in the country.

This maize deficit has significant negative implications for Malawi’s economy and food security. The report estimates that with a 22.5 percent reduction in maize harvests, the country’s GDP would decline by 4.4 percent in 2024. What’s more, the country would permanently lose two years of economic growth even if maize yields recovered in 2025. Reduced harvests in previous El Niño years have also pushed millions of Malawians into acute food insecurity, driving up the need for humanitarian assistance.

The report suggests two pathways through which to mitigate these stark effects. The first is by mitigating the impact of El Niño on agricultural production itself through improved production practices. The second centers on limiting the impact of reduced domestic production on food security by strengthening social safety nets and proactively planning for increased food imports.

Efforts to reduce the impact of El Niño on harvests should include encouraging the adoption of early-maturing and drought-resistant maize varieties, as well as the adoption of alternative crops that are more naturally drought-resistant, such as sorghum and cassava. Improved soil management practices, such as mulching, minimum tillage, and intercropping, can also help improve soil moisture and nutrient retention and prevent total crop failure.

Of course, encouraging adoption of new practices and crops will require government intervention to ensure the proper enabling environment. This will include ensuring the availability and affordability of appropriate seed varieties and increasing extension services for farmers, particularly in the southern area of the country where El Niño effects tend to be more significant.

The second pathway focuses on ensuring the country’s food security even in the face of poor harvests. These efforts should include encouraging the use of proper post-harvest management techniques to reduce food loss. On a larger scale, the country will need to more proactively plan for increased staple food imports from regional partners less affected by El Niño or from other producing regions, such as East Africa or North America. Thinking ahead will allow for increased food purchases ahead of food crisis, as well as at times when import prices are more affordable.

Finally, Malawi should increase its social safety nets, including utilizing cash transfers as long as there are adequate food supplies to support purchasing and ensuring urban populations are taken into account in social protection programs.