Malawi is a least developed country with few natural resources to benefit from. It is among the world’s ten poorest nations, and it relies exclusively on imports for its petroleum-based energy needs and food.
Tobacco, a cash crop, accounts for more than half of all export revenues, and sugar, tea and coffee also earn foreign export revenues. Maize and cassava are the important food crops.
In Malawi, agriculture provides the source of income for 85 percent of the population, and the overwhelming majority of these people are subsistence farmers. Farmers plant on small plots by hand at the beginning of the rainy season in October/November, but with little irrigated land, people are vulnerable to increasingly erratic rainfall.
The country is densely populated, which makes for depleted soils as Malawians try to produce on increasingly limited land resources. The HIV/AIDS crisis has also hit the country hard: nearly as many as 13 percent of adults aged 15-49 are infected with HIV, according to 2007 estimates, with clear consequences on the labour force.
Recent national estimates indicate there are around 1.8 million orphans in Malawi, of whom 45 percent lost their parents to HIV/AIDS.
The country also suffers the effects of deforestation as trees are cut down for charcoal fuel.
FAO works closely with the government of Malawi, and the country was hailed in 2008 for its third consecutive year of maize surpluses. This success has been attributed to the government’s extensive subsidies programme, which has ensured that quality seed, fertilizer and pesticides are supplied to the country’s poor smallholder farmers.
FAO is supporting the government through a Technical Cooperation Project worth US$500 000, which is providing quality maize seed, vegetable seeds and cassava cuttings to vulnerable families for plantings from October through December 2008.
In 2008, Malawi exported maize to Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland, and it provided supplies for food aid within its own borders. Nevertheless, large amounts of wheat, maize and other cereals were still imported, and there remain isolated pockets of hunger throughout Malawi, especially in the south, which suffered recent extensive flooding.
Maize prices just before the 2008 harvest, despite predictions of more than 1 million tonnes of exportable surplus maize, were five times the price levels at the same time in March 2007.
According to the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC), some 520 000 people remain vulnerable to food insecurity, due especially to stubbornly high prices. Although most farmers still have maize from the last harvest, some families, especially urban dwellers, remain at risk for not having produced enough for their own consumption.
FAO is supporting the government through a number of programmes aimed at:
- maximizing the irrigation potential of Lake Malawi, Africa’s third-largest freshwater lake. Not even 3 percent of land is irrigated, but Malawi intends to create a 20-kilometer wide Green Belt along the lake shore forming much of the country’s eastern border
- diversifying crop systems, including aquaculture along the shores of Lake Malawi
- intensifying livestock raising, again to diversify farming systems.
- providing technical assistance in construction of metal silos to reduce post-harvest losses
- providing policy support in the context of high food prices
With irrigation, two and three harvests could be possible per year, instead of what is currently just one harvest without.