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September 27, 2009

Malawi has surplus maize crop, but cotton farmers are struggling

by Charles Mpaka

In a country where maize crop surplus fills the national storehouses to capacity, farmers Ida and Montfort Salijeni and their four children have turned to wild tubers for food.

The Salijeni family's misfortune is that they grew a crop - cotton - that failed to sell.

And they are not the only farming family struggling to survive, across the country other cotton farmers are in a similar situation. It is a situation many blame on government, which has been in a protracted disagreement with buyers over minimum prices.

Because buyers of cotton feel the prescribed government prices are too high, many have opted to simply not buy cotton this year. And it is a decision that has meant the Salijeni family have to now live off wild tubers in order to eat. "I have no choice but to go for these (tubers). I have to feed my children. If only I could sell my cotton I would have money to buy maize," said Montfort, peeling the potato-like tuber he had found in the bush at his home in Chingale, Zomba, in southern Malawi.

Chingale lies in an area that often has insufficient rain. Although Malawi has been producing a surplus maize harvest as a result of the farm-input subsidy President Bingu wa Mutharika's administration introduced in 2005, Chingale has not been harvesting much maize because of drought.

But the area is one of the main cotton-producing regions in Malawi. High cotton production and good sales neutralised the effects of low maize production, according to the villagers. Cotton has been raking in the much-needed money, enabling households to buy maize from elsewhere.

But this year most farmers say they have not sold a single kilogramme of cotton, following a disagreement between the government and the buyers over prices.

The Malawi government fixed the minimum price for cotton at 54 cents per kilo, but the buyers offered only 30 cents, saying the global financial crisis had lowered the demand, and therefore the prices. The government has refused to give in. It argues the Malawi cotton farmers have been exploited for too long, and deserve good returns for their labour.

The price disagreement has caused major buyers such as Cargill to withdraw from the cotton-producing areas, and the company has closed some of their Malawi offices.

Since the sales season opened last April the cotton buyers have not been to Chingale, and families there are now desperate, as hunger looms. In the past most farmers in Malawi have sold their cotton by July. As the rains approach, Chingale farmers are worried their entire crop could spoil.

"We are really stranded, because we do not even have the means to transport our cotton to the buyers. If the first rains come next month this whole cotton crop will rot here, and all our efforts will be in vain. The way things are, it will not be too long before we start talking about hunger-related deaths here," said Davison Mbayisa, one of a 42-member club of cotton growers, and father of seven.

The club, which benefited from the farm-input subsidy last season, harvested eight tons but is yet to sell this. Another club in a neighbouring village harvested seven tons, and like the club in Chingale, has yet to sell their crop.

"As the rainy season draws close, our desperation is increasing because the rainy season is difficult. It demands a lot, including food and farm inputs," said a village headman in the area, who is a member of a club of 64 farmers.

The farmers now wish the government had accepted the low price the buyers offered.

"We know that the government wanted to protect us, and enable us to make profit from our cotton, but now we don't have a choice. We wish those who could buy the cotton at the low price would come here now and buy our produce, because we are going to die of hunger," said Ida Salijeni.

Hunger hits Chingale harder during rains, because the area is difficult to reach with trucks, and people’s income-generating activities decline because of the poor condition of the road to the main cities of Blantyre and Zomba.

Grant Nyongolo (28) cycles four hours twice a week to Blantyre to buy maize, which he sells in his home area. But once the rains begin business stops, because of full rivers and difficult terrain makes it impossible for Nyongolo to continue on the route.

Nyongolo stays in a village only one hour away from a depot for Admarc, Malawi’s grain-trading parastatal, but the depot does not have maize during the rainy season because the area is hard to reach by trucks from the struggling parastatal's warehouses.

"We face hunger here every year, because at the time we need food most, the depot does not have anything. When people have sold their cotton, they buy maize in advance in preparation for the rainy season. Now that cotton sales have gone this bad, I don’t know what is going to happen to people in the area," said Nyongolo, a father of two.

A village headwoman shared the worry.

"People are going to die here. If it were not for the school feeding programme (giving children porridge at school) things would by now have been terrible for some of the children in the village," she said.

Speaking on the cotton sales impasse, deputy principal secretary for Agriculture Erica Maganga referred to an earlier communication from the ministry, saying the government had licensed some buyers ready to buy the cotton at 54 cents per kilogramme, and that the farmers would "soon" sell their cotton.

On the hunger threat Maganga said her ministry dealt only with production, and referred to the Department of Disaster Preparedness and Management Affairs, which reports under the office of the president and cabinet.

But the secretary for that department, Lillian Ng'oma, said her office had no record of Chingale being in need of help.

"I have a list of areas that we will be reaching with help, but that one is not among them, and the department cannot do anything about it. We first receive advice from a committee that assesses the food situation after the growing season. Without the advice of that committee we cannot do anything," she said.

The president of the Farmers' Union of Malawi, Prince Kapondamgaga, underlined the link between cash crops and food security.

"It (food security) is not achieved only through having food in the home. It is also through finances, and that is why cash crops are part of food security. The ideal situation would be to have both the food and the money," said Kapondamgaga.

He said it would be unfair for farmers who had difficulty selling their cotton to describe Malawi as food-insecure.

"Overall Malawi has a food surplus, but we could complain about late delivery of food aid to areas where there is a need," he said.

Before the general election last May, the Ministry of Finance issued a report saying the general rise in crop production, following the agricultural reforms by Mutharika's government, had meant Malawians - especially those in the rural areas - had been able to increase their income.

In its analysis the ministry’s report said the past five years had seen poverty reduced by 25 percent. When Mutharika took over government in 2004, 52 percent of Malawians lived below the poverty line of 1 dollar per day. By December 2008 only 40 percent continued to live below that line, the report claimed.

Acting on this report, the government announced it would not include cash crops such as cotton on the list of the beneficiaries of the farm-input subsidy this season.

In presenting his 2009/10 Budget, the Minister of Finance said global fertiliser prices had dropped, and cash-crop farmers could therefore afford the input. But in response some smallholder cotton farmers say they will not plant next year, because the input costs are too high.


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