Malawi changes tack

Malawi has long been the posterchild for the subsidize-maize-fertiliser-and-all-will-be-well school of agricultural development. The success of the government’s programme was touted wherever aid experts gather.

“For four years in a row, a starving country is no longer a starving country,” said Pedro Sanchez, an advisor to the Malawian government who directs the Tropical Agriculture and the Rural Environment Program at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Calestous Juma, professor of international development at Harvard University, extravagantly praised cheap fertiliser in his book, The New Harvest. And he singled out Malawi’s miracle in a 2010 interview with New Scientist magazine.

African soils are in a poor state because of the low use of fertiliser. Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s president, is showing the lead here. He is giving subsidies to farmers to buy fertiliser.

But what’s this? Malawi has now decided to give away goats and to promote alternative crops, and is passing a nutrition act that bans the sale of “non-fortified basic foodstuffs”. The country is acting as if there’s more to food security than bumper maize harvests. And they admit it!

Senior civil servants claim the moves mark a departure from farming policies that simply aimed to fill people up with staple maize in lean times. Food shortages affect 1.6 million people every year, and an estimated 47% of children have stunted growth because of undernutrition, making them more vulnerable to illness and learning difficulties.

This has to have been on the books longer than the recent grain shortages plaguing the south of Malawi, and the country’s troubles are far from over. But if the shift in direction does make the country both better nourished and less susceptible to shocks, perhaps we’ll start hearing less about simplistic solutions to wicked problems.

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