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Restructuring Agriculture in Malawi: Let the Hoe Rest in Pieces

Updated: Dec 30, 2019

Pic by Paul Jeffrey

Agriculture, food security and nutrition in Malawi bears the image of a poor rural farmer. And while males are most associated with commercial agriculture, female farmers in Malawi bear the brunt of food provision, an integral part of their fulfillment of socially and culturally determined reproductive roles in the household. For all farmers in Malawi, the most advanced piece of agricultural technology keeping many homes going remains the rudimentary hoe.

This week, we turn to argue why we believe the current model for feeding the population is most unlikely to satisfy the nation’s feeding and nutritional requirements, especially by exposing how this is already failing. Worse, the reliance of an entire country on farms that will structurally have limited productivity due to an acute challenge in accessing inputs and knowhow, is a threat to the survival of many of the country’s poor and vulnerable.

To start, the news of our ballooned population should be welcome when examined from the economic perspectives of domestic demand and labour supply. The intricacies of the demographics show that, with a large youth base, Malawi’s population will have a lot of active warm bodies to spin its engines of economic growth for a long time to come. Ideally, their earnings should nicely bring consumers for many of the basic goods and services the small and medium entrepreneur will provision the market system.

But runaway family planning guarantees the fate of the hungry to stay the same or even worsen. Our population growth of over 3 million Malawians between the two censuses of 2008 and 2018 are a major problem for the very economic sector that should have been celebrating this as an accomplishment. In especially rural locations, the population boom is connected to land availability for the poor in a complex system of landholding where the variables of social norms and traditions, large-scale land-based investments, land grabs and environmental degradation and climate change are key to its contraction. Based on a 2016 study by Anseeuw et al., a relatively strong phenomenon in landholding is the rise of medium-scale farmers who are consolidating small landholdings through purchase of rural plots, which in turn reconfigure rural economic structures by transforming rural farm owners into farm workers. As much of rural employment persists as informal, the precariousness of rural people’s employment hampers their abilities to guarantee sustainable access to food via the market.

While all these dynamics impact the nature of the farm in Malawi in their different ways, a population boom – alone – seems to be doing its fair share of the damage to agriculture as the mainstay of livelihoods in the country. Growing families that live on communal lands mean that landholdings will continue to fragment as land is redistributed among eligible members for whom family land could be the sole resource on which they must depend for survival. As we stated in our 21 May 2018 article, the pressure on family land creates a competition for land in communities. This introduces a governance challenge many village heads are neither prepared nor particularly skilled for.

The consequence of this auto-reconstruction of landholdings is that agricultural productivity suffers greatly as plot sizes shrink, further causing hunger and buttressing fragility of communities, families and individuals. An important factor in such a scenario is the eventual size of the agricultural plot on which an average family, averaged at 0.47 hectares according to FAO’s 2011 statistics, will cultivate. With limited inputs, services, reliance on erratic rainfall, and flimsy farming knowhow required to addressing preventable farming losses, create the typical recipe for hunger and non-viability of agriculture as a business. As a result, the country must routinely deal, under great budgetary stress, with the hungry who have become a recurring national emergency every season.

Furthermore, cultural factors compromise the prospects of the full potential of Malawi’s agriculture, especially as they concern women’s roles. As stated above, culture prescribes that women should primarily take care of the family’s/household’s reproductive needs, central to which is farming for the family’s food needs. First, women are more likely to drag children with them as they take care of the family food gardens, potentially creating child labor when offspring loitering on a farm plot can lend a hand. Children are far from the ideal skilled agricultural worker who are also oblivious to the tricks of managing productivity-enhancing practices required in sub-optimal seasonal conditions. Secondly, societal patriarchal attributes prescribe limited education on modern agriculture for them to be viable farmers. Importantly, they are hardly as educated as men, which makes it hard to impart any critical skills in them, even when they demand it or when extension services are plentiful. But there are also specific challenges that they will face as women. Among these challenges are marginalization in access to prime land, inheritance of property, access to financial services and the disproportionate burden of care responsibilities at home that men will hardly share in equal measure.

Even the youth, who make the bulk of the productive working age in Malawi, are scarcely resourced to take on agriculture as a life-long career. Many youths still see the blue-collared nature of agricultural enterprise as unfashionable as it is unprofitable. Unfortunately, there are no real role models in rural agriculture that are available to offer inspiration. This makes it difficult for those out-of-school young people that are lucky to access financing through government-sponsored programs such as the Malawi Rural Development Fund (MARDEF). Like many rural farmers, especially women, targeting rural youths in microfinancing is generally blind to their potential as farmers who will produce efficiently in the face of numerous challenges.

Such a stubborn composition of challenges can hardly be conducive to advancing agriculture as a strong economic sector. The reliance of Malawi on small scale family farms, although supported by the international community for its historical contribution to food security and nutrition, does not promise to be sufficient for the economic wellbeing of the country in the long term. It just keeps us going while elevating our vulnerability when floods or other humanitarian phenomena occur. Low-productivity smallholders are unlikely to play an important role in the transformation of Malawi into the exporting middle-income economy we envisage.

Changes that must be put in place should consider structural transformation that allocates more funding to sectors where people’s inherent skills can be exploited and compensated fairly. This is because many of the people we call farmers are more likely than not to be better at other trades than agriculture of any kind. Government, together with partners in the private sector, donor community and civil society, has a duty to create enabling conditions for absorption of the excess labour into other productive sectors. They must be reallocated and enhanced to become workers that are best at the work they do in other sectors where it'll be difficult for political parties to recruit them as hooligans.

Our model of mass agriculturists is old and tired in a competitive world where a nation can’t afford to lock up over 80% of 17.5 million people in subsistence farming. Such a country isn’t even deserving of dreaming in colour.

It’s time we put Kamuzu to rest. Likewise, we must rest his most enduring principle of “chuma chili m’nthaka!”


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