Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika has pledged to embark on a "green belt" programme to enable the country, in the long run, to say goodbye to hunger and international food aid.
"Malawi appeals to the G-8 countries to support us to create a green belt around our lakes and along our rivers to irrigate land up to 20 kilometres from the shores. The Malawi government plans to grow a lot of rice, wheat, maize, millet, cassava, potatoes and beans for the local and international market," he told the United Nations General Assembly recently.
Mutharika, who is also Malawi's minister of agriculture and food security, has been applauded for using a subsidy programme for fertiliser and seed to boost local production. In 2005/06 the full US $50 million price tag was met by the government as donors sat on the sidelines.
"The green belts, if implemented, would help us harvest crops all year round, thereby curbing any food shortages that haunted the country in the past. We have been blessed with abundant water resources, which can be used to make the green belts programme work," Mutharika told reporters in the capital, Lilongwe, last month.
The green belts would stretch from Karonga, a town in the extreme north, near the border with Tanzania, to Nsanje, a town on the Shire River on the southern border with Mozambique.
Up to 90 percent of cultivated crops are rain-fed, but Malawi had numerous irrigation schemes along Lake Malawi and the Shire Valley. Many ground to a halt when the dictatorship of Hastings Kamazu Banda collapsed in 1994, partly because they were linked to his former ruling Malawi Congress Party's paramilitary wing, the Malawi Young Pioneers.
The new green belts initiative is likely to cover some of these irrigation programmes, most of which are either lying idle or underutilised. The government will also assist smallholder farmers establish their own irrigation schemes along Lake Malawi - Africa's second largest lake - to grow rice and maize.
Need for commitment
Billy Banda, executive director of Malawi Watch, a social justice advocacy group, said the green belt idea was long overdue. Because of low output on insufficient land, over a third of farmers cannot produce enough and have to sell their labour for part of the year to buy food on the market.
"There has to be political will to make this dream come into reality. Secondly, all Malawians should support the initiative without necessarily looking for outside intervention, because as a country we have all the resources to implement this ambitious initiative," Banda said.
A report by Christian Aid, an international non-governmental organisation, Fighting Food Shortages, Hungry for Change, cited failure by past governments to invest in small-scale irrigation as one of the reasons some families in Malawi face hunger.
"Climate change may be adding to people's food insecurity: long dry spells in the middle of the growing season are becoming common; floods at the same time of year destroy crops, but the biggest problem is the failure by government to tackle root causes of the farmers' problems," the report noted. For instance, policy continued to focus on maize even though this crop is extremely sensitive to water shortages.
Government has since acknowledged the risk of a major food crisis by considering the purchase of weather derivatives – a financial instrument backed by the World Bank - which means that if the country's rainfall dips below a certain level then it will get a pay-out.