Funding for seed research struggles to make Malawi food secure as climate change hits hard


Raphael Mweninguwe


Over decades now, climate change has devastated smallholder farmers in Malawi. Floods have damaged millions of people’s lives, washing away crops, animals, and property – displacing families. Drought has caused crops to wither while still in the fields and in some cases, rains have completely failed.

To avert a hunger crisis in the 90s, the Malawian government introduced a subsidy programme which has become known as the Affordable Input Programme (AIP) to cushion farmers from the impacts of climate change. Under the programme, smallholder farmers received free fertilizers and hybrid seeds. It seemed to be the answer to the country’s food insecurity. However, while in some growing seasons the subsidy programmes have worked, in other years they have failed completely mainly due to failure in rainfall.

Research funded by philanthropy into increasing crop yields has a long history in Africa. Foundations like the Rockefeller Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have funded a number of research works in Africa of which Malawi is a beneficiary. In 2016 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committed US$5 billion for a five-year period for development initiatives with US$1 billion for agricultural research and innovation for smallholder farmers in Africa. At the same time the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) committed US$30 billion from corporations, foundations and governments to ‘boost production, income, and employment for smallholder farmers and agricultural businesses on the African continent for a five-year period’.

The results have been mixed. In the 2020/21 growing season, Malawi had a surplus maize production of 1.4 million tons because of the AIP, coupled with good rainfall. By contrast, President Lazarus Chakwera admitted early this year in his address to the nation that the country would not harvest enough maize and that crop yields estimates have been scaled down by 14 per cent of the last year’s production.  The African Development Fund (ADF) in July this year approved a $20.2 million grant to raise food production in the wake of Malawi’s failure this year to produce enough food due to drought that hit many parts of the country which has left almost to two million people are facing hunger, according to official government statistics.

So what has gone wrong? The hybrid seeds were touted as fast maturing, producing high yields and being resistant to drought. Many farmers, therefore, switched from local varieties to hybrids.

The promotion of hybrid maize meant that farmers could only buy the seed from companies that government had an agreement with under the programme. The subsidy programme is also costly. During the 2020/21 growing season, half of the Ministry of Agriculture annual budget went to subsidising farm inputs. Moreover, the hybrid seeds cannot be reused so, each season farmers need to buy new hybrid seeds from companies and despite the subsidy, with an estimated 50.7 per cent of the 18.7 million people living in poverty in Malawi, many cannot afford to buy hybrid seed every year.

In addition to these drawbacks, one study showed that smallholder farmers shun hybrid maize due to high storage costs. The study has also found out there is no big difference between local and hybrid maize yields and other studies have indicated that local smallholder farmers prefer local maize to hybrid in a number of countries in Africa such as Kenya, Namibia and Zambia and some have kept faith all along with local seed varieties and are still growing them.

‘It is not sustainable,’ says Kondwani Phiri, a 46-year old farmer from Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. He says the local varieties are proving to be doing well even in the face of climate change. Phiri, a farmer and father of three children says most farmers have been pushed to the brink of food crisis because of government policy on seed which he says needs to change.

Government seems to have listened. The 1993 National Seed Policy has been reviewed and a new policy of 2018 is now in place which takes into consideration a number of issues relating to seed and seed market needs. But some of the smallholder farmers still insist that the 2018 policy is not doing enough to protect their rights to choose to plant the seed they want. Some Malawian NGOs have joined calls to promote local seed varieties across the country arguing that there is a need to increase the farmers’ adaptive ‘capacity to climate change among smallholder farmers through the strengthening of local seed systems with community seed banking.’

In an apparent change of heart, the government also admits that local seed varieties are resistant to drought and need to be promoted. It has since 2012, constructed a seed bank aimed at improving the preservation of seeds of local varieties which it says are resistant to most pests and diseases and that they are able to withstand severe weather conditions.

Meanwhile, and despite the avalanche of expenditure and research, Malawians are still facing hunger in the wake of a number of research activities on seed varieties aimed at ending hunger. Many improved seed varieties have come on the market but the country is still in a hunger crisis. It appears that research funding by corporations and philanthropists has succeeded in making seed companies rich but has not made the country food-secure.

Raphael Mweninguwe is a journalist in Malawi.

Alliance magazine’s climate change coverage is supported by Fondation de France.

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