Malawi, like its neighbour Zambia, has staged a remarkable recovery from the widespread food shortages of the 2002/03 agricultural season.
From a situation where nearly 3 million Malawians needed food aid to survive at the height of the past year's crisis, aid agencies now estimate that the need for food aid will peak at about 400,000 people in January 2004.
But experts have warned that the recovery is extremely fragile.
IRIN recently interviewed Lucius Chikuni, Secretary to the Minister of State Responsible for Poverty and Disaster Management Affairs and Commissioner for Disaster Preparedness Relief and Rehabilitation, in the capital, Lilongwe.
This is the first part of the interview.
QUESTION: What were some of the lessons learned from the 2002/03 food crisis?
ANSWER: I would say the 2002/03 food crisis awakened us to the fact that the time had come for us to move away from total reliance on rain-fed agriculture - we realised we have a lot of water here, which we could use for irrigation. I was once ambassador to Egypt and Israel and the Israelis in particular were laughing at us, [because Malawi has so much water not used for irrigation].
So we are saying, never again do we want to face a situation like the one we faced in 2002/03.
Q: What actions are being taken to avoid a repeat of the food crisis?
A: We are going to take irrigation more seriously - we have 800,000 hectares of irrigable land which has been surveyed, land where water is not too far away, yet only 45,000 hectares are under irrigation. Out of that 45,000 hectares only 8,000 hectares belong to the poor communities - the rest are tea, tobacco and cane estates.
That's why government has decided that, within two years, working with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), we should buy 200,000 treadle pumps which will be strategically placed in communities that have water nearby.
We will start by tapping the surface water resources, which we have plenty of, before we even think about [using] underground [water resources].
One third of the country consists of water (in Lake Malawi). We should have no excuse [for not increasing irrigation farming].
Also, if we intensified winter cropping we would not lack food in this country - certain parts of the country have winter showers. There are communities that have access to wetlands and we should go full throttle to encourage them to use the wetlands.
We have found that our people believe crops like maize grow from [being watered by] rain, we want to teach them that crops grow not just from rain. Some communities have a perennial stream nearby and they will not use that water for their crops! We want to have them get away from the myth that it's only rain that makes crops grow.
It's a traditional belief ... our ancestors used to pray for rain, and if the onset of the rains was late they would go to holy ground to pray for rain. So it's from that traditional background [that the myth persists].
We are working on civic education to turn around that thinking. We are now on a drive with local governments to teach people about water management. Those communities will receive the treadle pumps from government.
We are also encouraging civil servants to purchase treadle pumps. There's a scheme with the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Food Security to provide soft loans to civil servants so they can purchase the pumps, ranging from fuel pumps [for the senior ranks] to treadle pumps for the junior ranks.
[The hope] is that they give the pumps to relatives ... so that he or she would be going back to the village every other month to collect food to eat in town. That scheme [came about] as a result of what happened to us in 2002/03.
Q: Are you looking at crop diversification?
A: We want to encourage crop diversification and diversification of eating habits. We should grow other crops, apart from maize – there's sorghum, millet, cassava and sweet potatoes. Nsima [a dry maize meal porridge] is the staple. [For Malawians], if they have not eaten that with their relish, oh, they have not eaten!
Plantains [green-skinned, banana-like fruit, eaten as a staple food in many tropical regions] for example, are a staple food for the majority of Africans in the West, the Caribbean etc., but not here.
My sisters and brothers must consider rice as [a staple] food. We are ... teaching diversification of what can be grown and what can be eaten.
This is what we have learnt in terms of lessons from the 2002/03 food crisis.
Q: So what is the way forward?
We think the rainy season [for the latest harvest] was a good one - it has enabled us to produce 1.9 million mt of maize and we have had an increase of 20 to 35 percent in tubers (cassava, sweet potatoes) in terms of production. Rice has not done too well - some areas suffered prolonged dry spells and an early cessation of rains, so we are down on rice [production].
However, we think the recovery can easily be set back if we are not in control, in terms of how we exit from the crisis. We must exit properly, by us putting in place a cushioning mechanism - the safety nets programme - [which] we want to intensify.
We realised that ... in a country without a social security scheme in place, safety nets are the answer for the vulnerable groups [such as]: ailing parents with a high dependency ratio (high number of children); the aged; orphans, due to HIV/AIDs; child-headed households, again due to HIV/AIDS; and people with severe disabilities.
For these vulnerable groups we will continue to provide direct welfare transfers. Whereas, for the marginalised groups, we will target the able-bodied with food-for-work and/or public works programmes, to enable them to access or buy food.
We want to provide free agricultural inputs - [such as] fertiliser and hybrid seed - to vulnerable groups, to enable them to produce enough food to eat.
That's what we have in place to cushion the recovery period. Food-for-work programmes are a more effective mitigation methodology. The beneficiaries will create village access roads, small irrigation dams, fish ponds to farm fish - which are a source of cheap protein.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs is targeting 21 of 27 districts in Malawi with fish farming schemes. We want to encourage communities to farm fish to sell and to eat.
The second part of the IRIN interview with Lucius Chikuni will be posted on Tuesday. In it Chikuni outlines why he believes the International Monetary Fund's structural adjustment directives played an aggravating role in Malawi's food crisis, and what is being done to make the country's recent agricultural recovery sustainable over the long term.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions