Agriculture shows, which were temporarily closed when Malawi transformed itself politically – that is, from one party system of government to multiparty in 1993 – have now been resumed. The aim of these shows is to encourage competition among farmers. During the shows farmers display different kinds of crops which they grow.
Officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation judge the best crops and the winners are given some farm inputs such as chemical fertilizer, hoes and ploughs.
The ministry also ensures that farmers produce enough for their families at household level. For the past two seasons, farmers produced a lot of crops especially maize which is Malawi’s staple food. Other crops which farmers grow include cassava, beans and sorghum and livestock include cattle, goats, sheep, guinea fowls, chickens and ducks.
Farmers also compete on how to prepare these foods during the show using local methods without losing its taste.
The materials that are used to prepare the foods are moulded pots and many families especially in the rural areas use it. It is in the rural areas where 85% of the 11 million Malawians live. But with globalisation the use of moulded pots is fading away at a very fast rate.
A lot of people are now using metal pots which are imported materials from South Africa and Europe. However, despite these effects of globalisation many people are still preparing their foods using local methods. At a recent agriculture show in a tea and coffee growing district of Mulanje more than three hundred farmers displayed their crops and the Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation Mekki Mtewa was in attendance.
Looking at the number of crops on display one would have been tempted to say that Mulanje was one of the districts in Malawi where people would be free from hunger. Ironically, Mulanje is among the districts in Malawi where majority of the population is facing
Among the reasons are lack of farm inputs, shortage of land and poor farming methods. The fact that farmers showed their crops did not answer the question of food shortage facing the district in particular and the nation in general. Mulanje district has a vast area but much of the land is covered by tea and coffee plantations and this leaves three quarters of the population foodless.
However, majority depend on Mozambican farmers who grow enough maize and sell the surplus to Malawi. This year Malawi is running a shortage of food due to floods and shortage of rain in some parts of the country.
According to Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) official statistics Malawi is facing a cereal deficit of 155,000 tonnes including 125,000 tonnes of maize. Sadc region is estimated to be facing a deficit of 3.87 million tonnes for the 2001/2002 marketing year.
Mtewa said it was the government’s wish that people should have enough food at household level.
He said his ministry was aware about the high costs of farm inputs but said government was encouraging farmers to benefit from loan programmes offered by the private sector. The government also encourages farmers to use organic fertilizer in their farms. But many farmers have argued that the preparation of organic fertilizer was expensive and cumbersome. Knowing that the country would face food shortage, Mtewa urged farmers not to sell what they had.
‘You should not sell all what you have otherwise you will suffer,’ he warned.
He encouraged farmers to grow crops in the wetland (dimbas) during the dry season as one way of supplementing their yields. But the growing of crops along the river banks has its own environmental problems, too. Many rivers do flood when there is a heavy downpour which results in land degradation.
‘I know that land degradation is a result of poor farming methods,’ said Mtewa, adding that there is need to educate farmers on the need of soil conservation.
Most of the problems that the country experiences, said Mtewa, were due to lack of extension education.
Land degradation within wetland areas is a very complex issue and environmental experts say that degradation has led to a number of problems such as the destruction of biodiversity.
‘We need to educate our extension workers so that they understand issues of biodiversity and turn educate farmers this science,’ he said.
He said that to win the battle against environmental degradation, his ministry would have to work together with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs, the Ministry of Tourism, Parks and Wildlife and the Ministry of Land.
‘It is this kind of approach that will help our farmers produce enough food,’ he said.
But with rising costs of farm inputs, the majority find it impossible to maximize their farms. About 65 per cent of the 11 million people in Malawi live below the poverty line.
Despite the high costs of inputs, farmers in Malawi will continue to prepare whatever foods they produce using the local means without losing their original taste.
Raphael Mweninguwe, a journalist specialized in environmental issues, contributes to The Nation and is a member of the Slow Food Award International Jury
Photo: Mount Mulanje