Malawi – from agricultural success story to food crisis

First, an essential ingredient for success in agriculture is strong political will at the highest level. In his book The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, Calestous Juma, a Harvard University professor originally from Kenya, argues that African leaders should make agriculture a key element of all major economic decisions.

Rhoda Tumusiime, the head of agriculture at the African Union Commission, agrees. She notes that while success in agriculture does not have many drivers, leadership is crucial. “There must be a key political champion at head-of-state level to steer and champion a vision on agricultural revolution,” she told the Economic Commission for Africa.

Mutharika not only had the political will, but tried to lead by example. And his anti-poverty policies attracted many advocates. The director of the New York–based Earth Institute at Columbia University, Jeffrey Sachs, who has worked closely with Malawian authorities to fight poverty, is among them. “We should … remember a positive legacy of the late president Mutharika, because that legacy holds a key for Africa’s future development and escape from poverty,” Sachs wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times.

“Until his final two years, Mutharika had actually engineered an agriculture-led boom in Malawi, one that pointed a way for Africa to overcome its chronic hunger, food insecurity, and periodic extreme famines,” said Sachs. He credited the late president for standing “bravely against the arrogance of an ill-informed foreign aid community back in 2005”.

Food security equals national security

Second, while foreign aid is critical in feeding the hungry and reviving agriculture in Africa, food security is too important to be left to the generosity of external partners. Food security requires the same seriousness and resources as national security, if not more. In fact, national security loses its legitimacy if thousands of citizens die not from enemy firepower but from starvation, or risk their lives crossing borders while fleeing from hunger.

And finally, Africa needs a strong food policy backed by resources from African Union members, to be invested in institutions that promote agriculture. One tangible AU response has been the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), which requires countries that sign up to it to spend at least 10% of their national budgets on agriculture. CAADP itself has a very small budget, but it uses the little it has to strengthen agricultural institutions and build teams of skilled personnel who roam the continent sharing best practices with national authorities.

“There is no doubt that African agriculture needs strong local institutions to avoid the kind of bubble that we saw in Malawi, which was largely driven by external energy,” Martin Bwalya, the head of CAADP, told Africa Renewal, alluding to Malawi’s dependence on donors for its short-lived success. CAADP, which is run by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the AU’s development agency, recognises that Africa needs institutions whose effectiveness and shelf-life do not depend on the survival of individuals.

Mutharika tried to follow the path of subsidies and largely succeeded. Countries that have pursued Malawi’s lead have “achieve[d] breakthroughs in farm yields and food production for the first time in their modern history,” said Sachs. Mutharika’s successor, Joyce Banda, Africa’s third female president, now has to formulate a new food policy, woo back the donors, stabilise the economy and again get agriculture back on track.

This article was first published in Africa Renewal