African food basket; image courtesy of The African Executive

African food basket; image courtesy of The African Executive

In 2005, President Bingu Wu Mutharika of Malawi embarked on an innovative five-year solution to promote Malawi’s agriculture sector by increasing farm subsidies and allocating 10 percent of the national budget to the agriculture sector to help promote infrastructure and farm training. Despite concerns from the World Bank and the UN, President Mutharika promoted Malawi’s agriculture sector and decreased poverty from 52 percent to 40 percent while turning Malawi into a food basket not only for its people but also for export. Malawi produced 1.1 million more ton of maize than the country requires annually and now exports this excess to neighboring countries. Malawi was also able to provide over 200 metric tons of rice to Haiti during the disaster relief.

In 2004 Malawi experienced a famine that threatened one third of the country’s 13 million people — half of whom live in poverty. Malawi found the solution to its own problem by ignoring pro-privatization advice from experts from the World Bank, the World Food Program, and other international aid organizations. The World Bank also advised Malawi’s farmers to shift to growing cash crops for export and to use the foreign exchange earnings to import food. Starting in 2004, Malawi launched the nationwide Agricultural Inputs Subsidy Program that has provided coupons to roughly half of Malawi’s small farmers to buy fertilizer and seed at a rate below-market prices. Because of its subsidy program, Malawi managed to put aside a supply of food in case of emergency while boosting crop yields and decreasing the cost of food.

Malawi showed the world that it too, like Europe and North America, can effectively subsidize agriculture. Joshua Kurlantzick, author of “The Malawi Model,” says Malawi’s approach is worth imitating as a model for agricultural development because it has actually worked compared to the failed privatization models upheld by international aid economists trying to find a “universal response” for a diverse range of countries.

Malawi’s subsidy program has potential drawbacks. Farm subsidy programs have the potential to force farmers to leave the agriculture sector because of decreasing crop prices. On average, Sub-Saharan countries lose 10-15 percent of total agricultural incomes due to farm subsidies. Mutharika’s plan might just be focusing on the short-term impact rather than the long-term. Then there are the political criticisms of Mutharika’s authoritarian tendencies. Finally, even if the Malawi model has worked for Malawi, can it work for the many diverse countries of Africa and in such a short time frame?

Exporting the Model

President Mutharika has now proposed a five-year plan to make Africa independent of foreign food assistance. This five-year plan, also known as the African Food Basket project, focuses participating African countries and all cooperating partners on improving agriculture and food security through subsidies, increased budgetary allocations, and affordable information and communications technology. In Africa, only one-third of arable land is cultivated. Mutharika believes that increasing the land cultivation and government spending in the agricultural sector can reduce hunger and poverty by half by the year 2015.

Mutharika’s plan also promotes social development along with infrastructure building. Investments in women, youth, education, and infrastructure development can help build the agriculture sector. In Africa, women provide over 70 percent of agriculture labor, particularly in the production of crops. Yet, women lack the access to information and markets, which can provide them with land, resources, fertilizers, farming technology, and financial support. Because of the influence of traditional cultural roles, men still make the majority of decisions. As a result, women, who do the majority of agriculture labor, do not have say in the decision making despite being more involved in the production.

The African Food Basket project plans to resolve this disparity by empowering women to have control over land, what crops to grow, what farming systems to follow and how to use the income that accrues from farming. This plan relies heavily on education. By educating women, especially in the rural areas, literacy rates will increase, which will directly improve women’s access to information and to markets that promote an increased production of crops. Even though Malawi did not initially use women empowerment during the earlier years of agriculture reform, research has shown that by developing farming skills in women will directly promote sustainable growth. Women generally control the agriculture market and contribute significantly to the informal sector, which is the most booming and vibrant economic sector.

Young people, too, are a key to agricultural success. According to the African Food Basket project, youth will undergo structured non-formal training on model farms, with graduate students linked to micro-finance institutions through funds like the Youth Enterprise Development Fund (YEDF) in Malawi. YEDF attracts and facilitates investment in enterprises from market stalls to industrial parks beneficial to youth. An increase in farms will lead to an opening in the labor market, which will attract the young and the old to the agricultural sector while increasing the food supply.

Transportation is a third element in improving food security. Approximately 20 percent of crops are spoiled during transport. By improving methods of national and cross border transportation, like roads, railways, ports, harbors, and air transportation, African countries can ship food more effectively and avoid a significant loss in crops. Mutharika is strongly promoting the building of a greenbelt along the Nile River, the Niger River, Lake Chad and the Shebelli-Juba basin in northeast Africa to promote irrigation. Only 7 percent of arable land is irrigated compared to 29 percent in South America and 41 percent in Asia. A Grand Green Belt, connected throughout the continent, could raise the level of irrigation and, by extension, agricultural productivity.

A Feasible Plan?

Malawi’s success and Mutharika’s ambition to solve hunger and poverty show the world that Africa has the potential and ability to improve its own food situation. But not all African countries are alike. Some countries are in massive debt. Somalia’s deficit of $3 billion in 2001, for instance, made it difficult for the country to allocate additional funds for agricultural development and continued budget shortfalls continue to plague the country. But outside actors could help countries in deficit. Even Malawi received substantial financial assistance for its agricultural turnaround. Britain’s Department for International Development in Britain contributed $8 million to the subsidy program in 2006.

More challenging, perhaps, are the countries that are not motivated to increase government spending on agriculture. The government of Teodoro Obiang in Equatorial Guinea, for instance, is infamous for corruption and government mismanagement. It recently spent more than $830 million to construct a luxury complex for an upcoming African Union summit to be held outside the nation’s capital in hopes of attracting foreign investment. This sum could have gone a long way toward creating food security in the country.

Even for countries that are willing and able, the five-year timetable of the African Food Basket will be challenging. It took Malawi approximately a decade to establish food independence. Achieving even a measure of that success for the continent as a whole in five years is simply unrealistic.

Daniel Gustafson of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Liaison Office for North American say that the FAO supports the idea of the African Food Basket Project. A 10 percent increase in African countries’ national budget allocations to the agriculture sector is a wonderful idea and there is no reason why Africa would not be able to see advancement on a larger scale. Countries like Ghana, Nigeria, and Malawi have done exceptionally well at becoming independent and investing in food production.

The political situation in Malawi, meanwhile, has become considerably murkier. The government cracked down on anti-government protests in July, killing 19 protestors. The Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. government agency that provides countries that practice good governance with developmental assistance, has placed a hold on its five-year agreement to provided $350 million, among other things, to improve Malawi’s agricultural productivity. Despite its agricultural success, Malawi continues to face poverty, illiteracy, and governance issues.

The African Food Basket, in other words, requires not only investments in the agricultural sector but good governance as well. If Malawi can achieve both these goals, then it can really show the way for the rest of the continent.

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