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Posted on on June 10th, 2008
by Pincas Jawetz (

Malawi cultivates cash gains for its farmers.
By Alan Beattie, The Financial Times, June 10 2008

Try walking 25 kilometres carrying a 50-kilogramme bag of fertiliser on your head, as farmers in Malawi do, and you might get a sharper appreciation of the difficulties in building agricultural supply chains in Africa.

It is hard to find a country that more embodies the struggles to improve African farming. Landlocked, crowded, one of the poorest countries on earth, Malawi’s 10m semi-subsistence smallholders coax harvests of corn from poor soils in family plots averaging just half a hectare. { BUT THEY DO IT – A success story! }

Yet a nationwide experiment, and a more intensive local pilot operating as part of an international trial, have shown the gains possible from giving farmers access to inputs that their counterparts elsewhere in the world would regard as routine.

A widely-watched government subsidy scheme, which gives smallholders vouchers to buy seed and fertiliser, helped to double the harvest between 2004-05 and 2005-06, and has just helped produce another rich corn crop.

Meanwhile, in the south of the country near the high Zomba plateau, a cluster of settlements that is home to about 35,000 people has become part of the international “millennium villages project” inspired by Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and backed by the United Nations.

The millennium villagers receive intensive help across a wide range of areas such as education, healthcare and setting up small businesses. On the agricultural front they get seeds and fertiliser on a more generous basis than the nationwide government scheme, and advice to help them diversify into cash crops such as groundnuts, cabbages, tomatoes and fish farming.

Glenn Denning, who helps run the project as director of the Millennium Development Goals Centre in Kenya, says that the villages should reach sustainably higher output in five to 10 years, though the Malawi one is likely to take longer. Currently, the corn cribs in the villages are overflowing with the second successive year of bumper harvests, two or three times the national average yield, which is helping to support the project’s other aims. A school-feeding programme giving corn porridge to pupils has increased attendance at the local primary school from 380 children to 500, the headmaster says.

Esnart Kaphesi, a farmer in the millennium village, used to harvest about eight 50kg bags of corn from planting traditional varieties of seed. Having been given higher-yielding hybrid seed and 100kg of fertiliser, her crop is now 21 bags and counting.

“This year is the best yet,” she says. Her first priority is an iron roof for her house to replace the thatch. If she continues to generate surpluses she wants to open a sideline trading rice.

Connecting farmers to the cash economy requires overcoming considerable challenges in itself.

Although the Zomba villages are closer to the nearest town than many in Malawi, some farmers still have to walk or cycle 25km to buy inputs or sell produce. Some club together to hire pick-up trucks to take their crops to the market. Cecilia Natchengwa, another villager, says that the rising cost of fuel is cutting into the money to be made from selling cabbages, although they remain her most profitable cash crop.

Whether the schemes of subsidised inputs are sustainable, or indeed applicable, elsewhere in Africa, remains in question. The national voucher scheme will be repeated for next year’s harvest. But global fertiliser prices, which largely reflect the cost of energy used to make it, will increase by 70 per cent. Ms Kaphesi estimates that, after keeping enough for her family to eat, she will be able to sell 10 bags of corn this year to raise 15,000 kwacha ($110, €70, £57).

Last year, that would have been enough to buy the seed and fertiliser she was given, suggesting the scheme could be self-supporting. This year, fertiliser prices have doubled to K9,000 for 50kg, meaning she would not break even without the free inputs.

Experts say that it is tricky to design large-scale government interventions that correct market failures rather than add to them.

A recent review of the national subsidy programme led by Andrew Dorward, a UK academic, was generally positive – especially since the scheme now encourages private markets to develop by allowing farmers to buy their fertiliser from agro-dealers rather than the government procuring it centrally.

But Prof Dorward says great care is needed when translating lessons from Malawi to other areas in Africa such as, say, western Kenya, which have better access to ports and more scope for agribusinesses to penetrate rural areas on their own.

“Input subsidies may also be appropriate here, but would need to be implemented very carefully to build on and strengthen the existing demand and supply systems,” he says.

Mr Denning is enthusiastic about the Malawian voucher scheme, but refers to the experience as “an inspiration rather than a model”.

The UK’s Department for International Development is one of Malawi’s biggest donors, and after much internal debate has continued to support the programme.

However, it is cautious about replicating it. Douglas Alexander, international development secretary, says: “I would not at this stage say the lesson is to increase agricultural subsidies across Africa.”

{ ??? – are the donors to stop short from getting Africa on its feet ? Is this because of OECD economies actually liking it if others are not able to become potential competitors? The halt-back attitude by those depicted in this article make us feel sick. comment)}


Hunger spreads to Ethiopia’s adults as food crisis worsens: Chronic drought, global food prices deal double blow.

Tariken Lakamu, 6, has been living on one meal a day. “I’m weak,” the child said. “I feel sick. I don’t get any food.”…

SHASHAMANE, Ethiopia – Like so many other victims of Ethiopia’s hunger crisis, Usheto Beriso weighs just half of what he should. He is always cold and swaddled in a blanket. His limbs are stick-thin.

But Usheto is not the typical face of Ethiopia’s chronic food problems, the scrawny baby or the ailing toddler. At age 55, he is among a growing number of adults and older children – traditionally less-vulnerable groups – who have been stricken by severe hunger due to poor rains and recent crop failure in southern Ethiopia, health workers say.

“To see adults in this condition, it’s a very serious situation,” Mieke Steenssens, a volunteer nurse with Doctors Without Borders, said as she registered the 5-foot-4 Usheto’s weight at just 73 pounds.

Aid groups say the older victims suggest there is an escalation in the crisis in Ethiopia, a country that drew international attention in 1984 when a famine compounded by communist policies killed 1 million people.

This year’s crisis, brought on by a countrywide drought and skyrocketing global food prices, is far less severe. But while figures for how many adults and older children are affected are not available, at least four aid groups said they noticed a troubling increase.

“We’re overwhelmed,” said Margaret Aguirre, a spokeswoman for the International Medical Corps, an aid agency based in Santa Monica, Calif. “There’s not enough food and everyone’s starving, and that’s all there is to it.

“Older children are starting to show the signs of malnutrition when normally they might be able to withstand shocks to the system,” she added. “What’s particularly concerning is that the moderately malnourished are soaring. It’s increasing so much that it means those children are going to slide into severe malnutrition.”

Ethiopia is not alone in suffering through the worldwide food crisis, which is threatening to push the number of hungry people in the world toward 1 billion. Last week, a UN summit of 181 countries pledged to reduce trade barriers and boost agricultural production to combat rising food prices.

But in Ethiopia, food production is hampered by drought, meaning the country has been hit with a double blow. Drought is especially disastrous in Ethiopia because more than 80 percent of people live off the land. Agriculture drives the economy, accounting for half of all domestic production and 85 percent of exports.

Sending more food is one solution, but there already is a global crunch as rising fuel prices drive up the cost of fertilizers, farm vehicle use, and transport of food to market. Biofuels, which are made from crops such as sugar cane and corn, are another contentious issue, with critics saying they compete with food crops.

The problem is echoed across Africa, from Kenya and Somalia and farther west. Exacerbating the global rise in food prices, which has sparked protests and riots in several West African nations, is an annual decline in food reserves across the high desert-like region called the Sahel, just below the Sahara Desert.

The so-called lean season that begins around June is marked by near-empty grain stores, with the next harvest not due until around September. Locust invasions and poor rains in recent years have only worsened the condition, which leads to deadly malnutrition among young children.

Aid agencies in Ethiopia are issuing desperate appeals for donor funding, saying emergency intervention is not enough. Ethiopia receives more food aid than nearly every other country in the world, most of it from the United States, which has provided $300 million in emergency assistance to relief agencies in the past year.

But despite the international help, the country is again facing hunger on a mass scale. Part of the reason, according to John Holmes, the top UN humanitarian official, is the country’s climate, chronic drought, and the large population of 78 million people.

The UN children’s agency has characterized this year’s food shortage – in which an estimated 4.5 million people are in need of emergency food aid – as the worst since 2003, when droughts led 13.2 million people to seek such aid. In 2000, more than 10 million needed emergency food.

Studies by the International Medical Corps in southern Ethiopia – the epicenter of the crisis – indicate that up to one in four young mothers is showing signs of moderate malnutrition.

Ethiopia’s top disaster response official, Simon Mechale, insists that the food situation is “under control” and will be resolved within four months. But in the countryside, there are signs that drought has taken a more serious toll.

At a recent food distribution in a village some 155 miles southwest of the capital, more than 4,000 people showed up for free wheat and cooking oil, but only 1,300 rations were available.

Harried health workers picked through the impatient crowd, sorting out the sickest children. Frantic mothers proffered their withered infants, hoping the children’s poor state would earn some food for the family.

Ayelech Daka said her 6-year-old son, Tariken Lakamu, has been living on one meal a day for the past three months.

“He was very fat three months ago,” said his mother, Ayelech said. “He was normal.”

Now, he’s skin and bones; he vomits just seconds after taking a bite of a ration offered by an aid worker. “I’m weak,” the child said. “I feel sick. I don’t get any food.”


Amid food crisis, a growing focus on local farmers: Poor countries were discouraged by development experts for decades from pouring too much resources into agriculture, instead being told they would be wise to focus more on manufacturing, tourism and other industries and then buy a lot of imported food from rich countries. But the ongoing food crisis is changing this mindset, with poor nations now increasingly being urged to invest more in local farming to become more self-sufficient. This is a self criticism in today’s The Wall Street Journal – June 10, 2008. THAT IS THE TRUTH !!!

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