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Malawi food shortage: how did it happen and could it have been prevented?

By Sarah King

Sarah King is currently working as an Emergency Capacity Building Officer with Christian Aid. Having completed a MSc in Public Health Nutrition at LSHTM, she spent 2 years as a field nutritionist in Kenya, working with Somali refugees (CARE) and with drought affected pastoralists (UNICEF). She also worked for a short time with WFP in Nicaragua. This article is based on an assessment trip made to Malawi in March 2002 and subsequent reports from the field.

Malawi, like much of the rest of Southern Africa, is experiencing the threat of imminent famine. On 27th February 2002, a state of emergency was declared by the president, but in reality the situation had already been deteriorating for many months before.

Malawi, a food and seeds distribution in Zomba District June 2002

In early 2001, flooding affected over 335,000 people in southern, central and northern Malawi. This destroyed crops, homes and possessions, and displaced thousands of people. The harvest in April 2001 resulted in an overall shortfall of 200,000 MT of maize, with wide geographical variations in production level.

The international and donor community had advised the Malawi government to reduce agricultural subsidies, in order to stimulate competition and the private market. This resulted in privatisation of the state run marketing board (ADMARC) which normally buys maize from farmers and provides them with agricultural inputs. Privatisation resulted in closure of many of the more remote ADMARC outlets and loss of this vital support. Donors, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), also recommended that Malawi cut its maize reserves from 167,000 MT to between 30 and 60 MT, just enough for a month or two's buffer in times of emergency. Much of the stock had been in reserve for several years and required rotating. The National Food Reserves Agency (NFRA) actually went further than this recommendation and sold off the entire strategic grain reserves during 2001. They then failed to replenish them adequately or in time to counteract the shortfall in production.

In October 2001, price fixing on maize was suspended. Overnight the price of maize rose by 340%, from 5MK/kg to 17MK/kg, in many parts of the country. By the end of December, 59% of households countrywide had exhausted their food stocks. By February, this had risen to over 70%, according to district assessment teams. Surveys by SCF-UK showed a sharp decline in nutritional status over the same period (see table).

Table 1: Results of Anthropometric Surveys - SCF-UK5,6
  Mchinji Salima
  Dec 01 Mar 02 Dec 01 Mar 02
Global Acute Malnutrition* 11.8% 12.5% 9.3% 19.0%
(weight/Height <-2 Z scores +/or oedema) (7.2-16.4%) (9.04-16.04%) (7.1-11.5%) (14.43-23.57%)
Severe acute malnutrition 3.8% 3.6% 4.8% 6.0%
(weight/Height <-3 Z scores +/or oedema) (1.9-5.7) (2.27 - 5.02%) (3.1-6.4%) (3.85 - 8.15%)
CMR** / 10,000 / day - 0.21 - 1.23
U5MR** / 10,000 / day - 0.75 - 2.82

* Compare this to 5.5% found in the Malawi Demographic and Health Survey 2000.
** Crude and Under-5 mortality rates Malawi, a food and seeds distribution in Zomba District June 2002 © CHRISTIAN


Malawians usually experience a hungry season between January/February and March/April, so they have a range of ways of dealing with food shortages. This year (2002), however, the hungry season had started the previous November, and by now the 'coping" 'strategies reflect growing desperation. Individuals and communities are exhausting food stocks, selling livestock, and other assets, mortgaging land, harvesting green maize prematurely, eating maize bran normally fed to animals, eating wild and raw foods and turning to theft which is punished by severe beatings, amputations and worse. In this country of smallholder farms and little employment, the physically able are spending more time searching for food than working to prepare their fields for the next crop, and rural-urban migration is increasing. HIV/AIDS and TB are widespread, there is a lack of affordable, available drugs and health services, and people who try to manage the effects of AIDS with good diet, are losing their fight.

Compounding the food shortages further, cholera outbreaks began in September 2001, and have claimed over 1,000 lives countrywide. It is estimated that 10% of GDP is now spent on funerals. In rural areas, where robbery is normally rare and attendance at funerals, weddings, etc, is a vital part of community life, farmers are choosing not to attend for fear that their fields will be raided while they are absent.

How did it reach this stage?

Malawi is a relatively fertile tropical country. Natural factors (flooding, drought) have played a part in reducing harvests. But many argue that the current crisis has been caused just as much, possibly more, by the country's extreme poverty, high population density, lack of employment opportunities, small land-holding size, lack of agricultural inputs, lack of irrigation, low skill / education levels, widely underestimated levels of HIV/AIDS and poor governance.

In the past, even two or three years ago, the food shortages in Malawi could have been fairly easily remedied by importation from nearby countries, particularly Zimbabwe. However, huge shortfalls in Zimbabwe's 2002 agricultural production are having a direct impact on the price, availability, and accessibility of food stocks throughout Southern Africa. Competition for maize between the current seven food deficient countries (Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland, southern Zambia, Zimbabwe, parts of Mozambique, and Angola) is intense. The consequence for landlocked Malawi is that its imported maize has to be sourced in non-traditional places and transported through other food insecure countries first, which means prices and delays increase.

Response through partners

Facing such a situation, at such a late stage and with so many contributing factors, presents a huge challenge for all humanitarian agencies. The challenge for non-operational, partner-based INGOs like Christian Aid is perhaps even greater because of the varying locations, mandates and capacities of its local partner organisations. At the same time, this same variety also offers huge potential for reaching those most in need. Local NGOs, faith-based and community organisations have the distinct advantage of being present, often in the more remote or inaccessible areas of the country, where needs are typically greatest. They are already organised and fully integrated within the communities they serve at the onset of disaster. They can immediately concentrate on rapid assessment and response, without the extensive consultation and trust-building period required by agencies new to the area. Their intimate knowledge of the social structure and politics can ensure programmes are tailored to the needs of that particular community and are designed to avoid some of the traps that outsiders can fall into. This is why it is important that they are able to design their own programmes, rather than being contracted to implement another NGO's externally devised programmes.

However, they usually do not have significant funding reserves to call upon when disaster strikes, which can undermine these advantages. Some partners, such as Churches Action for Relief and Development (CARD), (based in Blantyre), are large organisations with personnel experienced in disaster relief. Others are smaller, with a more generalised, development-focussed mandate, who are requested by their communities to 'do something' in times of emergency. This means that there is a great deal of commitment and motivation from the staff, but technical and human resource capacity may need to be strengthened to meet the specialised needs of emergency response. The organisation's employees and/or their families are often directly, personally affected by the disaster. Rapid staff turnover is a common problem, especially when large international agencies arrive offering high salaries.

Although they are extremely well-placed to respond, distance from main towns and limited human resources can mean that smaller NGOs are not always able to attend coordination meetings, and therefore miss out on vital information and collaboration opportunities. Indeed local NGOs are very often not even invited to national level coordination meetings, possibly because they tend not to mix in the largely expatriate circles where a lot of the more informal information sharing and coordination takes place. In Malawi in the early stages of the international response to the crisis, there was no functioning formal, national-level coordination mechanism at all.

Multi-faceted response

Malawi presented a particular problem for Christian Aid's partner NGOs who despite limited capacity, wanted to act to save lives and livelihoods in the early stages of the crisis. Securing donor funding (eg DFID) was difficult because of stipulated conditions, such as avoiding local purchases of maize. This presented a real dilemma: maize was unavailable in country at reasonable prices, and what was available may have been the 'missing' NFRA grain from 2001. Yet to import maize was costly, time consuming, the delays could have resulted in more deaths, and our partners did not have the capacity to do it.

Christian Aid recognised early on the highly complex nature of the situation in Malawi. The malnutrition and mortality is the result of many factors, all of which are reflected in the UNICEF conceptual framework of malnutrition: inadequate diet, disease, food insecurity, lack of health services, poor health environment, social factors, and fundamental political, economic and structural factors (mentioned above).

It is not possible for any one organisation to address all these issues. Christian Aid has been working with various partners addressing different aspects of the crisis, strengthening programme design, ensuring SPHERE standards are applied where possible, and assisting in coordination between international, donor and local organisations. Those partners with particular strengths have been supported to address certain issues, and links with other agencies have been facilitated to address different needs (See Box). A Regional Emergency Manager will be posted shortly to oversee the emergency programmes in Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Food for thought?

Malawi is a country that does not usually get much international publicity. At the time Malawi's crisis was unfolding, the world's attention was focused almost exclusively on Afghanistan. The warning bells sounded by Malawian NGOs were not heard until it could no longer be denied that there was a very serious problem, and it was almost too late to do anything other than 'firefight'. Yet still donors seem reluctant to respond. The impact on Malawi will be considerable, and it will take years to recover from a situation whose severity could have been mitigated by paying more attention sooner rather than later. How many other countries have lost key personnel to Central Asia or another '"Disaster of the Moment'", leaving them unprepared for disaster situations? How many more innocent citizens must pay the ultimate price for their government's actions?

Acknowledgments This article was made possible by Christian Aid and its local partners, especially CARD (Churches Action for Relief and Development), in Blantyre, Malawi For further information, contact Sarah King at: or Mary Convill at:


Christian Aid and partners' responses in Malawi

Aims and activities

To integrate immediate food needs with health provision:

  • CARD have distributed maize and likuni phala (a popular, locally made, fortified corn/soya porridge) to 29,000 families in two districts. Since they do not run health programmes, CARD linked up with SCF-UK in Salima, and strengthened existing links with the MoH in Nsanje to ensure treatment and referral systems for patients.
  • Livingstonia Synod are running feeding centres for 4,500 under-fives in the north of the country, and providing general ration and agricultural support to the families of the affected children. They know from experience that intra-household food allocation means children in that region often do not receive the food meant for them if it is given as take-home rations.

To mitigate against the effects of HIV/AIDS:

  • The Likulezi Trust is supporting 825 families affected by HIV/AIDS in Phalombe district, southern Malawi, with food aid and home-based care. It also supports the families of the volunteers who provide this care.

To address household food insecurity:

  • Christian Aid is assisting five local organisations to prepare a joint seeds and agricultural input programme for approximately 100,000 families in 16 districts. Funding will be sought from donors who prefer dealing with a few large proposals than many small ones. This will promote crop diversification (cassava, potatoes, groundnuts, vegetables) to reduce dependency on maize, provide extensive training and include fertiliser to improve yields, in time for the next harvest.

To take fundamental issues into consideration:

  • Christian Aid is supporting the Malawi Economic Justice Network and a local advocacy network, the CDCC, which works on civic education, essential in a country still recovering from a brutal 30-year dictatorship.

Show footnotes

1Background Briefing Paper on the current food situation in Malawi: Mary Convill, Christian Aid (Harare), 29 APril 2002

2Malawi Economic Justice Network - Collins Magalasi, telephone conversation with Jane Drapkin, Christian Aid, 21 May 2002

3Itano, N. Man-made food crisis grips Southern Africa. The Christian Science Monitor, 15 May 2002

4Dalitso Kabambe. Availability of grain and tuber stocks for the period January to March 2002: Planning Division, Ministry of Agriculture

5SCF-UK:2001 Mchinji and Salima Nutrition Surveys

6SCF-UK: Nutrition Survey Report, Salima and Mchinji districts, Malawi March 2002

7Dr Potter, DFID, personal communication

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Sarah King (). Malawi food shortage: how did it happen and could it have been prevented?. Field Exchange 16, August 2002. p20.



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