With its investment in subsidies, fertilizers and seeds for poor farmers, Malawi has shown that hunger and poverty can be combated effectively if only the will exists. The Western world's view that subsidies disrupt the market and that fertilizers lead to eutrophication is not true in Africa because the increased production goes to self-sufficiency and that the fertilizers do not have to be concentrated as much as in Europe. That is the opinion of Olof Hesselmark, a retired economist and computer scientist.
"Now we don't have to be hungry anymore." It says a woman in Malawi when her little field for the first time yields enough food for the whole year. Her message should be at the heart of all discussions on how to fight poverty in Africa. Another woman in the film tells that as a result of the new farming methods, seeds and fertilizers, she harvested 32 sacks of corn where she previously only got 6. This she did on the same land, and with the same work effort as the year before.¹
This phenomenal result is the first step out of poverty, and now virtually all small farmers in Malawi are participating in the miracle. Malawi imported maize until 2007, now a surplus is produced. For the individual households, the effect was often that the acute hunger disappeared along with the need to scrape together money to buy food during the difficult months before the harvest.
There are over one million poor peasant households in Malawi, and those who took part in the project were able to take the first step out of poverty almost immediately. The cost was about SEK 300 per family for seeds and manure, a total of around SEK 300 million if you count one million farmers.²
It is therefore a question of less than ten percent of existing aid to largely eradicate extreme poverty in rural Malawi.
It is therefore a question of less than ten percent of existing aid to largely eradicate extreme poverty in rural Malawi. It is highly likely that the same effects can be achieved in all countries in Africa with many poor farmers. It is pretty much the same for all countries, and then it's about 100 million poor families.
The Malawi example shows that there is a way out of poverty, and that way is called more food in one's own field. Move ten percent of the total aid to the poorest farmers, then the first step is taken. The sequel goes by itself, as the films from Malawi tell us.
Evaluations and studies
The Malawi program has been the subject of a series of evaluations and investigations. In general, they agree that the production of maize has increased, and that overall aid has reached the set goals. I have read through a number of the reports that are available online (it takes a bit of detective work to find them all). What strikes one is that the perspective in the assessments is angled towards the agronomic outcome, not the human.
This is probably due to the fact that the project has been classified under "support for agriculture" and that the poverty target and distribution issues have thereby become subordinate. The evaluations have looked at the harvest outcome in the first place, they have studied the effects on market prices, and looked at whether the costs for seeds and fertilizers are offset by the increased harvest, which (of course) has been valued at an assumed market price.
In Malawi and similar countries, local maize market prices rise to very high levels just before harvest. It is this high price that the poorest have to pay when buying corn, it is their actual situation when the family is most vulnerable. Since they do not sell any maize after the harvest - they have no surplus to sell - the price of maize during the surplus period is completely without interest to them. I mean that the agronomists in their evaluations completely missed this - they have without thinking about used the post-harvest prices to evaluate the outcome of the project. It is just as one might expect - it is more or less stated in their method descriptions, which are based on the situation in a society with commercial agriculture. The result is an effective masking of the great welfare gains that 500-1000 kg more in harvest means for a family, and which becomes so easy to understand when you hear the farmers themselves speak in the films.
I have not found any evaluation that has found out the effects in households, financially and nutritionally. Film gives a bit of "anecdotal evidence", but it is a bit unclear whether the experiences from the film's village are shared by several. By not asking the question, one does not get to know in what way the family finances and the lives of the very poorest are affected when they get more food. It's tragic.
There have been significant effects on market prices in Malawi, which have fallen over the years of the project. As has been said, production has increased, and some commercial farmers who have not been allowed to take part in the subsidies have complained and said that they can no longer grow maize. This is not so strange, it happens in all countries when production conditions change. The commercial farmers can in any case switch to other crops, which is impossible for the poor farmers who must have food first.
Critics and objections
There have been various objections to the Malawi model. Two arguments are at the center: on the one hand, the old custom that state aid to farmers would disturb the markets, and on the other hand, that fertilizers would in some way be bad for poor farmers in Africa. I believe that both arguments are largely pure nonsense. We take the market argument first. Poverty itself is due to people not being able to produce enough food for their own families. Now the Malawi reform means that they can actually do it, but they eat the food themselves and feel better about it. They did not sell anything before, and they do not sell anything now. So how can it disrupt the market? The argument is usually driven by the large farmers in the country, who see reduced demand as a threat to the high prices during the month before harvest. Another interest in improved self-sufficiency is among global grain exporters in OECD countries. When Malawi became self-sufficient, a market for their subsidized overproduction disappeared. These cunning stakeholders are constantly inventing new fictitious arguments to hide their real interests.
The fertilizer argument is put forward by a strange combination of agronomists and environmentalists. Agronomists are arguing about optimal fertilizers for different types of soil, and some believe that the poor farmers use too much or too little of one or the other. This is certainly true and correct, but they forget that the soils are often extremely depleted, and that the marginal effect of just a little fertilizer leads to a doubling or more of the yield. Reality contradicts the argument.
The environmentalists, in turn, claim that commercial farmers in the West over-fertilize in the pursuit of extremely high yields per hectare, and that they do not want to see such environmentally damaging agriculture in Africa. But in Africa, the area is not the most important bottleneck in production, but it is the available labor in a completely manual agriculture that sets the limit for what a family can produce. The environmental effects are limited, and can in no way measure up to the welfare gains that result from better returns.
If all these resources were directed directly to the poor peasants in Africa, extreme poverty could disappear. Instantly. Across the continent.
Across Africa, there are around 100 million poor peasant families. SEK 300 per family corresponds to approximately SEK 30 billion, or just below Sweden's total development assistance budget. If all these resources were directed directly to the poor peasants in Africa, extreme poverty could disappear. Instantly. Across the continent.
The videos linked at the beginning of this article show how it can work. More food in the family means full children, children who go to school, mothers who can afford mosquito nets and medicine. This means savings and investments, trade and supply of goods in the villages, and money for a life that only a few in each village could live before. Development. Hope.
Eradicating poverty is one of the Millennium Development Goals. It would be fixed by 2015 or so, but for the very poorest farmers in Africa, absolutely nothing has happened, except in Malawi. But by redirecting 10% of Africa's development aid budget, self-sufficiency could rise to a whole new level. Their actual standard increase cannot be calculated as a percentage. The films provide the answer - it will be the whole quality of life that is improved.
The disturbances on the world market will be small, because there will be very small amounts of the supplement that come on the market, most of it is eaten locally. But marginally, it could lead to a slight easing of the pressure on food prices, if Africa's imports of maize decrease. In recent years, there has been great concern that food in the world is becoming more expensive. Imagine if the poorest of the poor could make sure to reduce this concern - it is also worth thinking about.
The scorpions crashed as usual, and no one really knew how it would go. The United States and the World Bank were opposed. But it succeeded - seeds and fertilizers arrived on time, an administration was created, the state's agricultural advisers in the field got something sensible to do.
How fast can a change happen? In Malawi, it went in one year, when the matter was pushed on by the president, some donors and the government. The scorpions crashed as usual, and no one really knew how it would go. The United States and the World Bank were opposed. But it succeeded - seeds and fertilizers arrived on time, an administration was created, the state's agricultural advisers in the field got something sensible to do. First year on a relatively small scale, and year two on a full scale. It can be easily repeated in most countries, and for example Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Uganda can directly copy Malawi's method. In Congo, it will take longer, region after region in this huge country.
It would be foolish not to try. How can Swedish development assistance be restructured? Are we seriously interested in directly helping the very poorest?
¹ See the women's stories on YouTube by click here
² This can be compared with the total aid to Malawi, which has been about 500 million US dollars in the last decade, ie. just over SEK 3 billion. British DFID supported the program for four years with approximately SEK 55 million per year. The subsidy was about 1/3 of the cost of seeds and fertilizer; the majority was thus paid by the peasants themselves.