As the planting season draws to a close, the Malawian government has pronounced its subsidised fertiliser programme a success, but some small-scale farmers claim they have yet to benefit.
The US$50 million programme aims to distribute three million fertiliser coupons to farmers before the planting season ends next month, but in the southern districts of Blantyre, Machinga and Zomba, where some farmers' maize is almost 30cm high, others claim that using chiefs and local leaders as "custodians of the coupons" has led to widespread corruption.
"Government said every poor family would benefit from the programme. Rains have been falling for the past month but we have not received any coupons from government, despite all the political rhetoric," said Anderson Gaga, a farmer in Blantyre. "The government is also wrong to give chiefs the responsibility of distributing coupons - most of them are selling them [coupons] to people who already have the money [to buy fertiliser]."
A subsidised agricultural input programme is critical: around 80 percent of the workforce are subsistence farmers who depend on fertilisers to grow crops. Malawi's food shortage, which left more than five million people in need in 2005, was compounded by the late delivery of fertilisers and seed.
Towards the end of 2005 the government introduced a coupon system, giving small-scale farmers access to 147,000mt of fertiliser at half the commercial price. Under the programmme each farming household is entitled to two bags of fertiliser - one to be applied on planting day, the other when the crop is 30cm high.
The programme ensured that in 2006 Malawi enjoyed its biggest ever harvest of 2.6 million mt of maize, at least half a million tonnes more than its annual requirement of two million mt.
Mazlan Jusoh, country representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) hailed the Malawian government's decision to provide a fertiliser subsidy as a "pro-poor policy, which could and has already alleviated a lot of suffering of the people".
"In terms of expenditure," he added, "it is much cheaper and more cost effective to provide an input subsidy than to provide food aid in the face of a crisis. At least, the people could plant and produce the food that they require. This is much more dignified than to perpetually receive food handouts."
President Bingu wa Mutharika has acknowledged some of the problems related to distribution of the coupons. He said fertiliser distribution "was on track - the only problem is that the coupons are not going to the intended beneficiaries, as we wanted. We are looking into this and we will arrest all those involved, including the chiefs."
He accused the political opposition of "stealing fertiliser to create a crisis", saying, "The opposition is buying fertiliser so that people do not have it; if I catch you I will throw you into jail, and I will take the keys so that you do not come out."
The government planned to use District Development Committees, which comprise traditional leaders, to distribute the coupons. However, the situation on the ground has been different, with allegations that individual chiefs have been controlling coupon distribution. Those who managed to procure the coupons have allegedly sold them at about $7 or more each. A young man who refused to give his name for fear of being arrested told IRIN that he got the coupons from "one of the local leaders".
The opposition, including the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Malawi Congress Party (MPC), have warned of looming hunger if the problem is not addressed. The MCP, which advocates universal subsidy, has called for a review of the programme.
UDF spokesperson Sam Mpasu said the government should "admit it has failed. It should not blame opposition; it has all the state machinery - and why don't they arrest those involved in corruption?" He maintained that most of those selling subsidised fertiliser were not from the UDF.
The government has started taking action. In the past two weeks a number of people, including local chiefs, have been arrested for allegedly selling fertiliser coupons.
FAO's Jusoh said "the policy of providing a subsidy to farmers as a means to propel them out of the poverty trap should ideally be depoliticised, so that decisions could be made more objectively. But then, very few countries in the world have come to this stage of maturity, to delink this type of policy interventions from politics."
Chief executive officer of the National Smallholder Farmers' Association of Malawi, Dyborn Chibonga, pointed out that proper distribution logistics were key to the success of the programme. "The situation is bad - many farmers will not benefit from the programme because of allegations of corruption by some chiefs, who are committee members."
The Farmers Union of Malawi said the programme was too ad hoc to succeed. "Farmers are told at a political rally that they will have subsidised fertiliser and, at times, they do not know how many bags they will have to buy. The sustainability of the programe is also not known," said Benito Elias, executive director of the union.
Agricultural experts have defended the initiative. "I think that the system of delivery, though debated and planned quite well, will be far from ideal in most countries, and more so in Malawi, where the temptation is much too great due to widespread poverty," Jusoh said. "This is where future schemes will have to be planned thoroughly, taking lessons learned from weaknesses previously identified."
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