Despite a bumper harvest last season, there are signs of maize shortages in some parts of Malawi, but deputy minister of agriculture Bintony Kutsaira has maintained that stocks of the staple grain are sufficient.
Spot-checks of outlets run by the state grain marketer, the Agriculture Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC), in major towns revealed that people have been forced to buy less than the minimum quantity of 50kg of maize. In some instances a 50kg bag of maize was shared among three or four people.
Vitus Dzoole-Mwale, chairman of parliament's Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, said parts of the country were suffering shortages despite a 3.5 million tonnes maize harvest in 2007. The country requires around two million tonnes annually to feed its population of over 12 million.
In late 2007, the committee found a number of households with no maize reserve to carry them through the lean season from December until the next harvest in April 2008. "As a committee we toured several districts throughout the country to assess the food situation and we discovered that a considerable number of people in many districts are already experiencing hunger," Dzoole-Mwale said. "The situation will need urgent government intervention."
However, agriculture deputy minister Kutsaira told IRIN that the country "has more than enough maize in stock", and talk of food shortages was incorrect. He said weather conditions had made it difficult for government to collect maize from the National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA) silos and distribute it to selling points throughout the country, causing a shortage of maize in ADMARC depots.
Charles Matabwa, general manager of ADMARC, agreed that the country had enough maize and said it would be available at all outlets where stocks have run low; allegations that the country was facing hunger were a lie. "Let us not wish to have hunger here. There is no hunger in Malawi, for we have enough maize that will be in our stock for many months."
Kutsaira said, "We have more than adequate stock of maize in our silos. For instance, the silos in Mangochi, in the south, have more than 15,000 metric tonnes while in Lilongwe [the capital] there is more than 80,000 metric tonnes [available]. "Our requirement as a country between now and April when people are expected to harvest their crop is around 30,000 metric tonnes."
A political tiff over exports?
The government's decision to export more than 300,000 tonnes of maize to Zimbabwe in 2007 has added fuel to the debate over food shortages. "We warned them not to sell maize wholesale to Zimbabwe, but they would not listen," said Hophmally Makande, deputy secretary-general of the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF). Malawi also donated 10,000 mt of maize to drought-hit Lesotho and Swaziland in 2007.
Makande rubbished the government's claims that it has been unable to transport maize to all the ADMARC outlets because of bad weather, and said the road between Blantyre, the commercial hub, and Lilongwe, where government has the largest number of maize silos, was in perfect condition.
"If you go around the townships in Blantyre you will see long queues of people desperately waiting to buy grain. They are not allowed to buy a 50kg bag, but only a mere 25kg - it is hardly enough for a family of two."
The USAID-funded Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS-NET) noted in its latest regional cross-border trade update that the price of maize had risen since Malawi had started exporting: prices were higher between April and December 2007 than in the previous season.
The average price of a 50kg bag is 1,500 kwacha (about US$11), but in areas reportedly experiencing maize shortages it cost K2,000 (about $14) - the price reached during the drought in 2005, when five million people were left in need of food aid.