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Food security options in Malawi: good neighbours make good friends?

Working papers

In the first half of 2002 it became clear that Southern Africa was at risk of a food and humanitarian crisis. Between February and April 2002 the governments of Lesotho, Malawi, and Zimbabwe declared emergencies, while in Mozambique an emergency plan to combat the effects of drought was begun. Subsequently in July 2002 the UN issued a consolidated appeal for US$611 million to address the crisis in the six countries most affected: Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

At the height of the crisis, in late 2002 and early 2003, nearly 15 million people, fully 25% of the population of the six countries, were considered food insecure. In response large amounts of additional food were shipped into the region, including food aid provided by donors.

These events prompt three sets of questions, namely:

  • What exactly took place during the crisis?
  • What were its causes? And,
  • What policy lessons are there to be learned to prevent or mitigate similar occurrences in future?

Malawi declared a National Food Crisis in February 2002. Estimates at this time indicated that around 3.5 million people (30 per cent) of the population of around 11.9 million were affected by the crisis. While the poor seasons in Malawi in 2000-01 and 2001-02 led to production levels that were lower than the previous two good years, overall, they were very close to the 12 year average. Following the 1991-92 food crisis, it had been hoped that new thinking on food security, in the context of structural adjustment and market liberalisation, would generate economic growth, and would make Malawi and the other countries of Southern Africa less vulnerable to food crisis (FFSSA, 2004a). Why then did Malawi experience one of its worst food security crises in recent memory?

Factors that will be explored in this paper include Malawi’s focus on ensuring food supplies through domestic production, which exacerbated the impact of mismanagement of the national Strategic Grain Reserve; and the high levels of vulnerability across the population, arising from income poverty and the impact of HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Evidence will be presented which implies that inappropriate policies and weak implementation have been important factors contributing to the high level of food insecurity in Malawi.

Elizabeth Cromwell and Nambusi Kyegombe