From Basket Case to Food Basket in Africa – Lessons in Making Hunger History

Wednesday, 5 August, 2009 - 10:47

In this article, Archbishop Njongo Ndungane reflects on the promise made by Malawi president, HE Bingu wa Mutharika to not go around begging for food and how that he has restored faith in Africa by demonstrating that the continent need not become the world’s basket case. He has done so by implementing effective ways to improve agriculture and combat food insecurity, but also shared these methods for the rest of the continent to benefit

Without a doubt I vote HE Bingu wa Mutharika, President of the Republic of Malawi, one of the best performing African Presidents. The reason for this is simple: in 2004 when he came into power he made a pledge - “I will not be a president who goes around begging for food”. Unlike other rhetorical commitments we have often been treated to, he has put his words into action.

Malawi is an agriculture-based economy where agriculture contributes over 80 percent of export earnings; 38 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and supports 85 percent of the population. Smallholder farming (3.42 million households) contributes 75 percent of agricultural production. Maize is the staple food, grown by 97 percent of farming households and consumed by every Malawian. Prior to 2004, Malawi was forced into massively import maize for a number of consecutive years due to bad weather and low input uptake, among other factors.

In the 2004/5 season, many parts of the country were hit by prolonged dry spells. Yields in that year dropped to around 0.8 tons/ha, one of the lowest on record. The national production declined to less than 1.2 million metric tons, representing a decline of 24 percent from the previous year, approximately 60 percent of the estimated national maize food requirement. The country and smallholder farmers in particular, were thrown into high risk and vulnerability.

In a space of three years, between 2005 and 2007, a miracle took place: the country has gone from a food deficit of 43 percent to a food surplus of 57 percent; productivity increased two-fold from one ton per hectare to over two tons. Maize production nearly trebled from 1.23 million metric tons to 3.44 million metric tons. Malawians had enough for themselves and to export. The graph below shows that the miracle continues in 2009.

How did the miracle happen? The government doubled its expenditure on agriculture from 7.4 percent to 14 percent; scaled up access and affordability of farm inputs through rapid up-scaling of agro-dealers and a smart subsidy programme (through non-transferable coupons) for a whole range of farmers from vulnerable households through hard-working ones and adapters of new technologies. From food exports and sales to the World Food Programme through the Purchase for Progress Programme, the country has been generating in excess of US120 million annually. This is then ploughed back for further scaling-up of the programme. To ensure that smallholder farmers graduate faster from reliance on subsidised input for food security the government has embarked on a manure-making campaign; intensified extension and research in agriculture and the Greenbelt Initiative.

In 2003, in what is commonly referred to as the Maputo Protocol, African governments were supposed to have worked towards a similar miracle across the continent. They committed to spend 10 percent of their national budgets on agriculture in order to ensure food security for their citizens by 2015. However, so far only six countries are making good on this political commitment - Malawi, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and Ethiopia. Nearly seven years after making the political commitment, 17 countries still spend less than five percent of their national budgets on agriculture.

Malawi has restored faith in Africa by demonstrating that the continent need not become the world’s basket case. Effective ways to improve agriculture and combat food insecurity are no longer a secret. In fact they are quite simple: scale up access and affordability of high yielding farm inputs through scaling up agro-dealers; put in place a smart subsidy programme for farmers; close the resource gap by leveraging commercial banks to lend more to agriculture through risk-sharing arrangements; build Africa’s capacity for evidence-based policies by strengthening policy institutions; and develop operational policies to promote agro-processing and value addition.

However, the one ingredient that pulls all these solutions together is political will to deliver on commitments that have already been made. As in the case of Malawi, donors may be resistant at the beginning; but if the country perseveres, ultimately, as long as the programme is well run and corruption-free, everyone will want to associate with success - as did the donor community in Malawi which provides budgetary support: DFID, EU, NORAD, Irish Aid, and World Bank among others.

It is time that Africa took the initiative to make hunger history.

Archbishop Njongo Ndungane is the Founder and President of African Monitor,


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