Malawi’s One Night Stand

By Mabvuto Banda

Gogo Munthali dissolves into tears every morning. She worries about what to feed her five grandchildren orphaned by HIV/Aids.

Munthali was among the first beneficiaries of Malawi’s farm input subsidy programme (FISP) in Rumphi, which lies over 400 km north of Lilongwe, when it was introduced some eight years ago by late President Bingu wa Mutharika.

About 1.7 million poor farmers were targeted providing them with two 50kg bags of inorganic fertilisers, improved hybrid and open pollinating maize seed at 50 % less.

A village headman in each village assisted by the Village Development Committees (VDC), identified the families with priority given to households headed by children and women.

The results were phenomenal; maize output almost tripled in the first two years from an average of 1.06 ton/ha in 2000- 2005 to 2.27 ton/ha in 2009/2010 pushing GDP growth to an average of 7.4 %, higher than the World Bank recommended rate of 6% for sub Saharan Africa.

Inflation slid into single digits, benchmark interest rates went down from around 40% to 25% for the first time in two decades. Food security at household level also improved. For the first three years, Munthali’s yields doubled from 10 bags of maize to 20 bags. But today, the 65-year-old widow is desperately poor and feeding her grandchildren has become an everyday struggle.

“Fertilizer for the last four years has been arriving late after the first rains…I have had to plant my crop three weeks late and this has reduced my harvest drastically,” she says.

But what worries Munthali more is Samson, the youngest of her grandchildren, who looks sickly and scrawny because he has fully blown AIDS. “Samson may not be with me for long; he is on treatment and I can’t give him the food he needs,” she says looking forlorn and lost.

Samson, 10, is a statistic in a country where UNAIDS says 200,000 children aged between 0-14 years are HIV positive and over 500,000 are orphaned.

Queuing up for maize for subsidy fertilisers
Queuing up for maize for subsidy fertilisers

Mary Juma’s story is not that different.

“We got so used to waiting for cheap fertilizers every year but now things have changed; today we are beneficiaries the next day we are not…last year we were left out despite being given coupons,” she says at Dedza district hospital about 45 km from her home in TA Pemba’s area.

“We were told that the fertiliser that had been delivered to our area was not enough for all the families that were given coupons,” Juma says.

Last year, her husband borrowed money from a revolving fund to buy fertilizers. “But we were not lucky; a prolonged dry spell destroyed our maize crop and left us in a debt of over K150, 000 (about US$400) and no food,” she says.

Then, when Mary gave birth to a third child and turned out to be a girl as well, her husband turned against her and worsened the tensions in the house. “He told me that he was going to find another woman who could give him a boy,” she explains.

With no food for her girls, an abusive husband, Juma decided to run away.

The untold stories of Munthali and Juma, offer a glimpse into how FISP has failed to change the status of most poor farmers in this southern African nation, 70 percent of whom are women.

This is a malignancy no one wants to talk about because the story of FISP in Malawi has always been about its positive impact and not otherwise.

“The story of FISP since it was launched has always been about how it has helped reduce poverty…no one has bothered to find out what has really happened to the poor farmers being targeted. Are they well off or life has become unbearable for them,” asks Chris Chisoni, national secretary for Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP)

Pilferage,corruption Bedevil FISP

Wide-scale corruption within FISP has been one of the main reasons for the programme’s failure to change the lives of many farmers as intended.

Another investigation in August this year by Malawi’s police revealed that during the 2012/13 season, 16,500 people registered as recipients under FISP, were left out after thousands of fertilisers were diverted.

“Thirty-three thousands 50 kg bags of fertiliser worth K470 million (about US1.4 million) were diverted and sold affecting 16,500 beneficiaries,” the inspector general of Police Lot Dzonzi disclosed in a statement.

CCJP conducted a study last year in 19 districts and found out the impact of corruption on poor farmers.

“We discovered that those entrusted with the responsibility of selling the inputs are asking the poor farmers to pay more than K500 (US$2), which is the recommended price for subsidy, forcing many who cannot afford to do without…” Chisoni says.

An investigation into the programme by Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) shows that the FISP nearly collapsed in 2005 after a preferred supplier from Saudi Arabia failed to deliver 70,000 MT of fertilisers on time.

While the investigation was conducted in 2007, the report, which still has not been made public, sheds more light into the behind the scenes intrigues that have become a familiar story when procuring fertiliser in the last eight years.

ACB found Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe to have disregarded advice on procurement of fertilisers not to award the contract to supply fertilisers to Pioneer Chemicals, a Saudi Arabian firm.

After an inspection team visited the premises of the company in early 2005, according to the ACB report, they advised Gondwe against awarding the contract to the Saudi’s because they clearly had no capacity.

But he, however, went ahead and his decision, according to ACB, cost the country 6.8 million dollars when the firm only managed to supply on time 35,000 MT of fertilisers out of the total contract of 70,000 MT.

Gondwe was investigated on abuse of office and possible kicks backs from the deal. The ACB concluded in the report that the Minister acted corruptly and coerced others to award the contract. In the race against time, between June and September 2005, government decided to source the reminder within the country.

“[As a result], the Malawi government incurred a loss of $6,898, 150 for procuring locally the 35 000 MT of Urea that Pioneer Chemicals failed to supply…” ACB said in its findings.

Apart from the country losing money, the overall effect was that many targeted farmers got their fertilisers late and had low yields.

Since no one was punished from the alleged malfeasance, despite the ACB findings,delays in the delivery of fertilisers, is now a norm. Each year, reports of inputs landing into the country late are reported.

The reason given is always that most of the suppliers given the contracts have no capacity either because they are agents or just mere briefcase companies like in the case of the Saudi company.

This, over the years, has resulted in poor harvests for many farmers because inputs reach them after the first rains like in the case Gogo Munthali. Early this year, President Joyce Banda, promised to act and act she did.

The Ministry of Agriculture disqualified suppliers both local and international who had a tendency of supplying the inputs late. Pioneers Chemicals was among them so was Muli Brothers, one of the most dominant local suppliers.

Gondwe, a former IMF vice president for Africa, last month said in an interview that he was cleared of any wrongdoing and the case is closed.

Examining the list of beneficiaries in the 2012/13 FISP, we found out that political patronage played a big part in deciding which provinces and districts gets more fertilizers.

This was in clear disregard to allocating more inputs to areas that produce more maize for the country and have less population densities.

In Thyolo, Joshua’s story was common; many don’t have land and yet according to the list of beneficiaries, not made public, the district last year had 90,000 beneficiaries – far much higher than Rumphi and Dedza, districts in the maize belt of the country .

Miracle or Mirage?

In the mid-1970s up to the early 1990s, Malawi financed a universal fertilizer subsidy program, providing cheap credit to smallholder farmers and controlled maize prices.

After 30 years, however, fertiliser support was withdrawn and the result was the decline in maize production. Government, however, didn’t give up.

From 1999 to 2004, it started providing small ‘starter packs’ to all households and later to a few targeted households. But chronic food shortages escalated despite the small-scale subsidies.

This is what made late President Bingu wa Mutharika to push for larger subsidies and building on his 2004-election manifesto, he decided to implement the FISP administered through a coupon system for targeted households.

But the results of the 2012 Integrated Household Survey underline the failure of FISP to reduce poverty as intended.

The survey found out that the incidence of headcount poverty had declined from 52.3 % to 50.7 % between 2000 and 2012.

And that during the same period the proportion of the ultra-poor increased from 22% to 25%.

This is the same period FISP was introduced to help reduce poverty.

Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, is one of the lone voices that agree that FISP has failed to reduce poverty.

“Recent high-profiled food security policies have failed to rid Malawi of chronic food insecurity and malnutrition,” said Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, when he concluded his eleven-day mission to Malawi in July this year.

Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture Jeffrey Luhanga blames the former government for fueling corruption that has in the end affected the poor farmers.

“This is a good programme with good intentions but failure to rid corruption has ended up in some bad results for the programme and punished farmers and made others rich,” he says.

“Our government is working very closely with police to deploy more officers in our depots across the country, involve undercover officers to track the lorries moving the inputs, and investigate and punish any officers found to be involved in dubious procurement deals with suppliers,” Luhanga says.