Page last updated at 00:00 GMT, Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Malawi's maize miracle

By Nils Blythe
Business correspondent, BBC News, Lilongwe

Emma Aron puts fertiliser around maize plants in her field
Farmers have been able to buy subsidised seeds and fertiliser

Malawi is one of the poorest and most densely populated countries in the world.

Four years ago almost half its population depended on food aid from abroad for survival.

But this year, Malawi has managed to feed itself and even export some maize to hard-pressed neighbours.

This remarkable turnaround has been called the "Malawi Miracle".

At its heart is a programme which provides heavily subsidised seeds and fertiliser for poor farmers.

Emma Aron grows maize on two acres of land near the village of Lundu.

Her one crop has to feed a family of four for the whole year.

In Malawi the winter months are known as the "lean times" because many families have run out of food and the new crop is not yet ready for harvesting.

The problem with using too much artificial fertiliser is that its costly and it gradually makes the soil less productive in the long run
Edson Musapole of Action Aid

Ms Aron remembers the suffering of four years ago.

"It was so difficult for me to see my children going hungry," she says.

"It was not easy for the children to attend school because they had no food."

For Ms Aron, the subsidised seeds and fertiliser have meant more to eat for her family.

And Adiel Banda, president of the Farmers Union of Malawi, says the programme has made him proud of his country.

"There has been a progressive improvement in food sufficiency," he adds.

Soil degradation?

But the programme has its problems. It is very expensive for a government which gets one third of its revenues from foreign aid.

Emma Aron (wearing the red skirt) with family and friends
Emma Aron says her children have had to go hungry in years gone by

And its cost depends on the price of fertiliser, which can fluctuate alarmingly.

Britain is Malawi's biggest aid donor, through its Department for International Development (DFID).

DFID's team in Malawi is led by Gwen Hines.

She believes that the fertiliser programme has significantly reduced hunger in Malawi, although under-nourishment in young children remains all too common.

Ms Hines is now exploring whether using futures market contracts to buy fertiliser would remove some of the financial uncertainties around the programme.

There is also some concern in Malawi that increasing the use of factory-made fertiliser will lead to a long-term degradation of the soil on which the country depends.

The charity Action Aid is helping to fund a programme to teach better techniques for making compost to rural women.

The idea is to help strengthen the soil, although compost is not seen as a complete alternative to fertiliser on the tiny scraps of land on which Malawian farmers depend.

"The problem with using too much artificial fertiliser is that it's costly and it gradually makes the soil less productive in the long run," says Edson Musapole, of Action Aid.

Global challenge

Malawi currently has a population of 13 million. That is expected to treble to around 40 million in the next 30 years.

So will the country be able to feed so many people?

Mr Musapole argues that with the right policies it will.

Tending to a field of crops in Malawi
Malawi has avoided droughts in recent years, unlike some neighbours

Even after recent improvements, agricultural productivity remains very low by international standards and can be raised much further.

It will be a huge challenge.

Government ministers and heads of state from around the world have gathered in Rome this week to hammer out policies on what they call "food insecurity" - that means the billion people in the world who are either hungry or at risk of being hungry in the near future.

Much of the attention at the meeting will focus on the need for developing countries to come up with their own solutions for feeding themselves, rather than being handed a plan by donors.

Malawi provides an example of a "country-based solution" which has succeeded so far.

It is worth pointing out that the south-eastern African nation has been fortunate enough to avoid the droughts that have afflicted some other African countries in recent years.

But the world will need a lot of successful initiatives if - as expected - global population rises to 9 billion by 2050.

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