Estere Chiperengay is able to feed her family. Photo: Malcolm G. Fleming/Oxfam
How are some small farmers managing to have food on the table?

Malawi: Beating the global food crisis

In May 2008, Malcolm Fleming, Oxfam media officer in Scotland, traveled to Malawi, where he spoke to a poor family which has learned how to manage its food supplies, through a government program.

Today, in countries from Haiti to Indonesia, families are struggling, and in many cases failing, to put food on the table as food prices rise ramatically. However, Estere Chiperenga has, perhaps surprisingly, enough food for her family of eight.

Grandmother Estere, who is in her 40s, is a small farmer in Wruma, a rural area in Phalombe district of southern Malawi. I met her a few days ago when I visited her village to meet with her and her neighbours to discuss how Malawi has managed to 'buck the trend' of the world food crisis.

Estere's family is one of the poorest families in a poor rural community in the 13th poorest country in the world. Yet despite facing shortages in the past, this year she was able to show me bags of maize, the staple food here, stored in her home.

Yet more maize, still not yet bagged, sits in her small brick food store. Normally, she and her husband would manage to harvest about four or five bags of maize in a year. This year she estimates she has 15 bags. With that extra food she is confident that she will be able to feed her family and also have extra left over to sell and generate some valuable income.

Fighting famine

So what has helped families like Estere's get to this position, while elsewhere the world is facing possibly its worst ever food crisis? Only a few years ago Malawi faced its own crisis, with droughts driving the country to the edge of famine, making food distributions from the likes of Oxfam and the World Food Program essential to people's survival.

Now, while such food distribution is still available for the most vulnerable, many hundreds of thousands of families just like Estere's have food in stock for the months ahead. This change is a result of an agricultural inputs program implemented by the government of Malawi, with support from donor agencies, including the UK Government.

Small farm subsidies

One of the main planks of the program has been a fertilizer subsidy allowing poor farmers, typically farming small plots of 0.4 of a hectare, to buy and use fertilizer, thus greatly improving their harvest. Over two million families have benefited from the program, with national food security established and other countries in Southern Africa now looking to Malawi as the example to follow.

Yes there are still difficulties, and yes putting food on the table can still be a struggle, but in a country which doesn't have its problems to seek, this is a definite success story, made all the more noteworthy given the growing crisis elsewhere. Tackling that crisis was the purpose of an emergency United Nations meeting in Rome in June (2008).

A global approach

As politicians, diplomats and officials met to discuss how to best respond to the problem, Oxfam called on them to implement a co-ordinated global action plan to address the immediate needs of 300 million poor people worldwide.

One of the actions that governments still need to take is to follow the Malawian example and support poor small-scale farmers across the developing world.

In the EU and US farmers have enjoyed substantial subsidies for decades. In the developing world, in countries like Malawi, it just takes a little to make a big change for families like Estere Chiperenga's.

Originally published by BBC News Online, 3 June 2008


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