Blog Post

Responding to Malawi's Looming Food Crisis

Malawi is heading towards a severe food crisis later this year after an El Niño induced mid-season dry spell—the worst in the last hundred years—affected the harvest of maize, the staple food grown by nine out of 10 farming households.

The government declared a state of disaster in March as the country entered its dry season with very low food stocks. Malawi consumes around 3.5 million metric tons (MT) of maize every year, but as of the end of the rainy season, the government projects that only 2.9 million MT will be harvested—a 600,000 MT shortfall. The next rainy season is not expected until towards the end of 2024, with a harvest around April 2025. This means that, as in past El Niño affected years, up to 40% of the population is likely to need food assistance. On April 30, President Lazarus Chakwera launched an appeal for $447 million to fund a comprehensive response.

Thus far only a fifth of the requested amount has been pledged, and few plausible sources of additional funding remain. With the government unlikely to raise the entire $447 million it needs, which interventions should it prioritize?

In this post we argue that, faced with limited funds and a limited time window, importing food is the only no-regrets option available.

Making choices

The National El Niño Induced Prolonged Dry Spells and Floods Response Appeal contains three broad areas of intervention:

  1. Preventing immediate hunger by (a) growing food in the dry season, known as winter cropping, and (b) importing food.
  2. Mitigating effects of hunger on other sectors, such as education and health.
  3. Future-proofing Malawi against similar weather-related disasters.

Building a food system that can withstand future droughts is the most important objective. We have previously suggested ways improve the resilience of Malawi’s agricultural sector to droughts and to raise farmers' awareness of them. However, this is a long-term effort that cannot prevent a famine this year. Intervention area 3 should therefore not be part of an emergency response—it is rather a developmental aspiration.

Intervention area 2 contains many important suggestions, such as screening for acute malnutrition, provision of nutritional supplements (under the response appeal’s nutrition cluster worth $8.6 million), school feeding programs to promote school attendance (under the education cluster worth $41.1 million), procurement of medical supplies and provision of medical services (under the health cluster worth $4.6 million), emergency veterinary services (under the agriculture cluster worth $2.5 million), etc. But they are more usefully seen as essential services needed in normal times. Any additional need due to hunger would be avoided if hunger is averted. In the context of the response appeal, funding for hunger prevention should therefore take priority over funding for mitigating its consequences.

This leaves intervention area 1, which consists of two options: Winter cropping and food imports. For a cash-strapped country, which persistently imports more than it exports, growing food in the dry winter season is a more attractive proposition than using scarce foreign exchange to buy it from neighboring countries. Indeed, despite planning for modest maize imports, the government envisages that support for winter cropping will close the entire production deficit before the next rainy season.

Yet this is a very risky strategy. It relies on three assumptions, none of which are realistic.

Betting on winter cropping is risky

Smallholder farmers residual cultivation

First, the strategy is dependent on the soil retaining enough residual moisture from the rainy season to enable maize cultivation during the dry season. The Malawi government says that, if it can buy $45.2 million worth of maize seed and chemical fertilizer for smallholder farmers with access to land in shallow wetlands (dambos) and on riverbanks, they will grow 210,000 MT of maize on 140,000 hectares of wetland.

But this is not possible following a drought. Even in a year when enough rain falls in the wet summer season, planting maize that relies on residual moisture cultivation needs to be done before June. This year the soils are already too dry across much of the country including the central highlands, Malawi’s breadbasket. Only the less thirsty crops such as sweet potatoes are still being grown with residual moisture, but this is standard practice in Malawi—there is little room for expanding their cultivation compared to last year.

Not all of Malawi received insufficient rain, but that hardly helps. The water level in Lake Malawi is at a historic high due to abundant rains in the north of the country and in neighboring Tanzania. To protect lakeshore properties from flooding, authorities are allowing three times the normal volume of water to discharge from the lake through Kamuzu barrage into the Shire River. Wetlands directly adjacent to the river, which would normally be cultivated at this time of year, are therefore still flooded. Even if the Shire’s discharge was reduced now, only one winter harvest, rather than the usual two, would be possible in these areas.

Utilization of existing irrigation schemes

Second, the strategy assumes that massive amounts of maize will be grown under irrigation. The government plans to supply $25.5 million in seeds and fertilizer to middle scale farmers and institutions like the Malawi Defence Force and Greenbelt Authority Mega Farms to grow 218,000 MT of maize on 48,400 hectares of existing irrigation schemes. It also wants to contract big commercial farms use 25,000 hectares of their irrigated land to grow 100,000 MT of maize for purchase by the National Food Reserve Agency at a cost of $48.5 million.

This will not work because the irrigation equipment that is in working order is already used to grow other crops. Most are cash crops that will sell for higher prices than maize, often in foreign markets. Earnings from their export would buy more imported maize than could be grown on the same fields. Growing maize for unprofitable prices instead of crops like groundnuts or sugar cane would therefore not only make little commercial sense; it would also harm—rather than help—food security.

Refurbishment and construction of irrigation schemes

Third, the government has said that it will repair almost 5,800 hectares of dilapidated irrigation schemes and newly irrigate 12,300 hectares of land at a total cost of $31.3 million to produce 87,000 MT of maize.

This is exactly the type of investment that, if done right, will increase agricultural production capacity for years to come. But, repairing irrigation equipment takes months and constructing new irrigation schemes takes years. It will not help prevent famine this year and cannot be an emergency response.

Winter cropping versus imports

If the government’s plans to grow maize during the dry winter season were realized, they would make up for Malawi’s entire production deficit. But that’s unlikely to happen. This leaves only one viable means to ensure that Malawians do not go hungry this year: Food imports.

We have argued before that food should be imported as soon as it becomes clear that Malawi will not harvest enough of it. This should be done before food prices start rising (as they typically do soon after the main harvest is completed) and before competition from countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all of which also face maize shortages this year, dries up regional markets.

Long import lead times add to the urgency of securing import contracts as soon as possible. Logistical constraints in road transport restrict imports from Tanzania, which is the most appropriate source of maize, to about 20,000-30,000 MT per month. Imports from overseas (Mexico, Argentina, or Ukraine) would take three to four months to arrive. For that reason, maize procurement contracts must be signed by June in order to accumulate substantial stocks for distribution by October.

Domestic procurement and cash transfers versus imports

It is important to note that procuring maize domestically and storing it in Malawi’s Strategic Grain Reserve (SGR) for distribution to vulnerable households during the lean season is not an alternative to imports. SGR operations in domestic markets can reduce seasonal maize price volatility by spreading supply of and demand for maize more evenly throughout the year, which can improve farmers’ ability to buy food from the market when they run out of their own production. It will not, however, close the gap between annual production and annual consumption requirements.

Cash transfers, which are also proposed in the appeal, will not close the gap either. If markets lack sufficient food, cash transfers will only push prices up, as consumers compete to purchase a scarce good. Similarly, distributing goats to vulnerable households so that they can sell them at time of hunger to buy other food items will only inflate the price of staples, without addressing their shortage in any way. If Malawi cannot grow enough grain domestically—and our analysis shows that it cannot—it must either import it or face hunger.

Donor support is essential

Unfortunately, the government does not have the resources to import the grain that will be needed, so donors will have to step in to avert widespread hunger. They may be reluctant to cover the bill due to concerns that a short-run humanitarian response may harm long-run investment to strengthen food system resilience and development in general—by competing for budget and by reducing the urgency of finding a long-term solution.

However, this is not the right time for a conversation about how Malawi can better face future disasters and whether aid stymies the reforms needed to improve the country’s resilience. Failing to import food would have dire consequences.

In a normal year, hunger costs Malawi over 10% of GDP in lost productivity, poor health and missed school days. Without humanitarian aid, the losses will be worse this year. Impoverished people whose resilience has already been deeply eroded will pay for survival by depleted assets (having to sell off the few that they have to buy food), deteriorating health, and compromised education, reversing years of economic development. Children in particular are likely to suffer life-long losses in cognitive and physical ability when exposed to episodes of hunger.

This should not be allowed. We ought to first face the looming crisis, learn from it, and then make the necessary reforms and long-term investments—not the other way around.

Jan Duchoslav is a Research Fellow with IFPRI’s Development Strategies and Governance (DSG) Unit. Mazvita Chiduwa is an Associate Scientist in the Sustainable Agrifood Systems Research Team at CIMMYT. Simon Denhere is the Deputy Country Director at WFP Malawi. George Phiri is the FAO Assistant County Representative in Malawi. Rodwell Mzonde was the Director of Agricultural Planning Services at the Malawi Ministry of Agriculture until his retirement in March 2024. Joachim De Weerdt is a Senior Research Fellow with DSG and leader of IFPRI’s Malawi Strategy Support Program. All authors are based in Lilongwe. Opinions are the authors'.