El Niño Food Crisis in Southern Africa

In response to severe drought in Malawi, state-owned Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation comes in to mitigate the countrywide food crisis.

Climate Change and Food Crisis 

Malawi, one of the poorest countries in southern Africa, was severely affected by recent climate change. The country faced its worst food crisis in its history due to two major consecutive climate shocks, including catastrophic floods in early 2015 and subsequent El Niño-induced drought from late 2015 through 2016. The President of Malawi declared the national state of disaster in April 2016. In response, the United Nations World Food Programme carried out emergency humanitarian food assistance targeting over 6 million people, about 40% of the country’s population.

The food crisis was exacerbated by weak infrastructure in place. For example, the scale of the food problem, which could have been otherwise brought under control, was further complicated by lack of irrigation in the country. Agriculture was mostly rain-fed in Malawi, making the crop season highly vulnerable to rainfall fluctuations. Non-commercial smallholder farmers, who contributed 70% of the overall national agricultural sector, could not afford to own any irrigation schemes, and hence, they were limited to grow crops once a year only. [1] For the 2015-2016 harvest season, the only annual crops were completely damaged by the El Niño drought.

Role of Mediator

In an underdeveloped country like Malawi, people struggle more than you can possibly imagine. Poverty is predominantly rural as access is a challenge in many ways. Those who live in remote areas do not have access to funds, access to markets, or in most cases both, which all hinder them from securing sufficient food.

Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC) plays an important role in the food supply chain in Malawi. ADMARC is a state-owned company that serves as a monopoly in purchasing maize, the staple food of Malawi, from farmers in efforts to control price fluctuations. Especially during the time of low production and rising prices, ADMARC sells rationed maize at a lower price than the market across the country, providing access to maize for low-income households in rural areas. [2]

Malawi had an extremely challenging crop season due to the drought during 2015-2016, which ended with an anticipation of national food deficit. The situations were worsened when ADMARC depleted maize stock in most of its warehouses, causing anxiety and unrest among the rural population. People formed long queues at ADMARC depots even before the sunrise, desperately needing maize to get through the difficult time until the next year’s harvest.

Importing Food

To alleviate the food shortage issues, the Malawian government authorized ADMARC to import additional maize from abroad. The government initially wanted to source maize imports from surrounding countries including South Africa and Zambia. However, the El Niño drought affected those other countries in the region as well, leaving almost no surplus there and making them look around for additional imports. That added to the difficulty in ensuring sufficient maize for Malawians and forced ADMARC to look elsewhere including Romania, Brazil and Mexico. [3]

In addition, ADMARC urged commercial maize growers with irrigation capacity to grow maize in the dry season. As a short-term solution, ADMARC could only rely on commercial farmers to raise production urgently. The government also planned to strengthen existing irrigation schemes in an attempt to replenish ADMARC stocks with additional maize production. [4]

Seeking Sustainable Solutions

With current trends in climate change, the government needs to address possibilities of future food crises and to prevent stock-outs at ADMARC warehouses. In the medium to long term, the government plans to consider increasing crop production during the dry season, which would require reviving long abandoned irrigation schemes as well as constructing brand new ones.

However, lack of financial resources is a big concern. As a country with one of the lowest per-capita GDP’s in the world, Malawi has a tight national budget. Total financial requirements to construct and maintain infrastructure are awfully large and almost forbidding for the country. Due to the financial limitations, the government can only implement irrigation projects in phases at the moment, and it will take a long time to cover the entire country. [5]

In the meantime, the government should explore other solutions within given resources. One quick fix is to plant drought-resistant crop seeds such as sweet potatoes. Still, switching staple food to such crops will not be an easy task in typical households.

And lastly, you may want to think in a big picture: is ADMARC serving as an appropriate social safety net to address food supply chain issues in Malawi?


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[1] World Food Programme in Malawi. Standard Project Report 2016.  http://www1.wfp.org/operations/200692-responding-humanitarian-needs-and-strengthening-resilience accessed November 2017.

[2] ADMARC LIMITED. http://www.admarc.co.mw/ accessed November 2017.

[3] “Malawi Hunger Crisis: ADMARC Tells Malawians Not To Panic”. October 31, 2016. The Maravi Post. http://www.maravipost.com/malawi-hunger-crisis-admarc-tells-malawians-not-panic/ accessed November 2017.

[4] Khunga, Suzgo. “Govt Defends Maize Imports”. May 25, 2016. The Nation Online. http://mwnation.com/govt-defends-maize-imports/ accessed November 2017.

[5] Shamu, Henry. “Irrigation In Malawi”. January 18, 2016. The Nation Online. http://mwnation.com/irrigation-in-malawi/ accessed November 2017.


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Student comments on El Niño Food Crisis in Southern Africa

  1. Thank you so much, Yuwa, for shedding some light on one of the world’s most rural places.

    The article made me wonder if the current aid provided to Africa by foreign countries and agencies, as generous as it might be, is efficient in preparing Malawai and other Sub-Saharan countries to the challenges of global warming. Based on previous conversations we had I understand that Malawai is highly dependent on donations from other countries. As you mentioned in the article, “the local government can only implement irrigation projects in phases at the moment”, I wonder if this foreign aid, instead of focusing on solving the imminent problem of drought, should change the focus to investing in infrastructure and, specifically, to building irrigation systems. In other words, and building on your question at the end of the passage, I’m afraid that ADMARC and similar agencies may serve as an appropriate social safety for the short term (they “give man a fish, and feed him for a day”) but lack the strategic aspect of “teaching a man to fish, and feed him for a lifetime”.

    Would be very happy to discuss this topic further.

  2. To echo Oded’s sentiments, thank you Yuwa for bringing to light such an important issue.

    There are so many aspects about the crisis in Malawi that make this situation especially difficult- the extreme financial constraints, difficulty of access to rural populations, and shared crises by neighbor states. As an added layer on top of all of this, the nature of climate change in this application is wildly unpredictability. ADMARC surely has their hands full with what I see as a two-fold problem: addressing both the short term and long term food crisis concerns.

    The measures being taken in the short term are essential to prevent disease and loss of life from hunger and starvation. The immediacy of the short term problem makes it even harder to do long term planning, however, in your closing questions you raise a good issue about how successful ADMARC is at serving as a social safety net. With current infrastructure unable to fix the situation in a long term, ADMARC is stuck in a vicious cycle. “Responding after a food crisis costs at least three times more than taking preventive action”. said Enzo Vecchio, Oxfam Somalia Country Director. So long as the country continues to be overwhelmed by seasonal crises they will be ineffective at combating climate change effects in the long term.


  3. This was a great read, Yuwa. I think that you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned that the food shortage issue is exacerbated by lack of proper irrigation infrastructure. As the granddaughter of a small-scale farmer, I recall that my grandfather only grew maize/corn in the rainy season, until he was able to invest in irrigation projects that let him grow maize in the dry season. Maize has a short lifecycle (with less than 6 months from initial planting to maturity), and being able to grow the crop twice in one year on one plot of land (versus just once during the rainy season) increases the yield (by close to a factor of 2).
    Given that irrigation projects make so much sense, the main issue is finding a way to provide Malawian farmers with the capital to build such systems. ADMARC could play a role in this, if, for example, the entity advances capital for a group of farmers to build irrigation systems, and holds back some of the cash consideration it would pay them for their harvest as repayment over a few years. This scheme could quicken the adoption of irrigation across the country, particularly if ADMARC starts with large scale farmers who are more important to the supply chain, and then expands such a scheme to small scale farmers.

  4. Thank you, Yuwa, I really enjoyed learning about the food crisis in Malwali and am troubled by the bind in which the country finds itself when determining whether to focus on short or long term. There doesn’t seem to be a situation that would allow the government to ignore the current state situation and is evident that ADMARC is making an effort to encourage Maize production from domestic farmers. However, it feels that ADMARC is taking on the bulk of the burden to solve this issue without the same degree of urgency from the government to establish an actionable, sustainable solution that can eliminate this ‘fire-drill’ mentality of solving the food crisis year over year. Although “ADMARC urged commercial maize growers with irrigation capacity to grow maize in the dry season,” they do not have the same power / authority as the government does to incentivize these farmers to do such. The government should intervene in a bigger capacity to more fully support ADMARC to enable them to more quickly identify a solution in the short and medium term so that they can collectively begin taking action on the long-term mitigation strategy.

  5. Super interesting read, and I found your short-term recommendation to be insightful. I wonder how much of a country or community’s culture plays into such issues. How easily can we plant new crops (that are more sustainable) and convince people to consume them? It obviously makes a ton of logical sense – having some food is better than having no food at all. However, in communities where resources are already limited and communication is challenged, such large-scale changes feel difficult. Also, foreign aid is helpful, but the correct allocation of such aid is vital. Should aid be used to build up infrastructure rather than to solve short-term issues?

  6. Thanks for the discussion, I enjoyed reading this. As you note, this is obviously a very complex problem, and one with very serious human consequences. I appreciated your suggestion to consider growing more drought-resistant crops, but similarly echo your thoughts on the difficulty to make this switch, especially in the short-term. Additionally, while I would consider food first and foremost a biological need, it’s important to at least consider the importance of food as a cultural value and the implications of forcing a nation of people to switch over their primary cereal crop. Furthermore, I wonder how effective switching to a more drought-resistant crop can be in the long-term, especially in a world where climate change may create bigger and bigger swings in global weather patterns. As such, I think the ultimate solution will necessarily require a more built up and widespread irrigation solution, and the reality of the situation is that I think this investment needs to come from the international community.

  7. Thank you for the interesting read Yuwa. Your piece highlights the difficult trade-offs that many financially-constrained African governments face and showcases why strong central governments with extensive planning and crisis response capacity are critical in the developing world. Given the financial cost of managing such droughts, I believe that more African governments should seriously evaluate the benefits of subscribing to country-level drought insurance policies. The ARC risk pooling system of the African Union is a good example of such solutions (http://www.africanriskcapacity.org/2016/10/29/how-arc-works/). As the previous posts highlighted, large-scale investment in irrigation infrastructure is an important piece of the long-term solution even though financing is an issue. I believe that ADMARC can play an important role in solving the financing equation if its incentives are aligned well-enough with those of the growers. An approach could be for ADMARC to move from a regulation function to a regulation and business-like role which would allow it to raise capital and on-lend to growers for irrigation infrastructure. Maize purchased from farmers could be partially sold in the market to service debt. As traders are inclined to take advantage of shortage events to artificially inflate prices, by having regular commercial relationships with a large number of cereal traders in neighboring countries ADMARC will be well positionned to leverage those relationships more efficiently in the event of future supply shocks in the country.

  8. Thank you Yuwa for addressing such an important problem. I found your suggestions quite insightful. The government definitely should seek for sustainable solutions to resolve the food crisis, as you suggested, they could plant drought-resistant crop seeds to make the yield less vulnerable and dependent on the water supply. I totally agree, and what I would think further is instead of asking the government and state-owned company ADMARC to take all the responsibilities of agriculture, especially when they are short of financial budget, can they play more powerful roles in solving this issue? for example, by mobilizing all the households in the country to start farming, teaching them the skills how to farm and incentivize them to grow the food by themselves. In such way, they could support themselves with food, reducing the burden of monitoring the supply chain of food in ADMARC. There is an old saying “Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime.” But this could be impractical. So would like to hear your thoughts further.

  9. Yuwa, thank you for writing about Malawi. This is a very fascinating topic – something that I would not have thought about on my own.

    Along the lines of previous comments, I’d be very interested in hearing about solutions that could provide multiple benefits to Malawi. Also, are there other countries that have gone through this similar issue?

    Potential options:
    1) Foreign Aid – Financially and Food through Malawi’s protection and sustainability of their food production process
    2) Building infrastructure/sources/reserves that can ensure a buffer for needed water for food production

  10. Yuwa, echo the other commenters in thanking you for bringing this incredibly important topic to light!

    I agree with your potential solutions (irrigation projects and drought-resistant crops), and wanted to highlight the role education programs can play within a multi-faceted solution.

    At Save the Children, we ran education programs for children and their families to learn more productive and sustainable farming methods, allowing them to increase yields with what they already have (in addition to providing drought-resistant seeds and in some cases larger-scale irrigation projects). Of course, this is dependent upon outside funding, the sustainability of which can be questioned. But on the whole I believe NGOs can be true partners to governments facing such crises and they should work education programs into their plans, along with seed and irrigation solutions.

  11. Thank you Yuwa for bringing this article.

    The situation is very sad and clearly not easy to solve. I really liked your suggestion on growing draught-resistant crops. The Northeast region of Brazil has been suffering from severe droughts for decades, it is a semi-arid region with very poor population. Government and local associations have tried several programs to alleviate the tough living conditions in that region, and among those were distributing water tanks, minimum pension for farmers, local educational programs on “combating the drought” for farmers, and fostering micro-credit. [1] I understand, however, that many of these initiatives require a minimum amount of investment in either infrastructure or in professionals and that might not be a solution for Malawi right now in the short-term.

    The short-term solution of having Government-supported ADMARC as a mediator helps to prevent human deaths and plays an important role in the ecosystem. I would be worried if potential inefficiencies in a government-owned monopolistic player is not resulting in higher overall maze prices in the market. Besides this issue, I am completely in favor of having the Government investing tax-payers money in order to alleviate extreme conditions for this part of Malawi’s population. For the longer-term, I think initiatives focused on providing minimum capital and minimum education for small farmers, so they can not only sustain their families, but also generate income selling to third-parties, is the best solution.

    [1] http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/12/no-more-mass-deaths-from-drought-in-northeast-brazil/

  12. ADMARC can do more to provide an appropriate social safety net to address food supply chain issues in Malawi.

    1) Improve storage
    Many low-income developing nations like Malawi see high wastage in the agriculture process. Small holder farmers are far more inefficient than mechanized or industrialized farmers. This makes small holder farmers even more susceptible to external risks like natural disasters. Some things the country can do to mitigate this risk beyond just investing in irrigation is increase the number of storage facilities. These facilities act as buffers for food stuffs. Instead of each individual small holder farmer travelling to the city on poor road infrastructure to sell their goods in local markets, they can just bring it to local storage facilities, pool their produce. Goods can then be aggregated to sell to larger buyers. This eliminates the amount of days between harvest and sale, which reduces the amount of food that spoils and is wasted.

    2) Encourage foreign direct investment through the private sector
    As you mentioned, Malawi lacks the financial means to increase production through improved irrigation and decrease the risk of stock outs. I think it can also raise funds through improving its regulatory environment to make the country more attractive for foreign investors to bring capital into the country. Unlike some of its neighbors, Malawi does not have a wealth of natural resources like precious minerals and oil. At the same time, it has low levels of education attainment and skilled labor force. Investors are unlikely to come to Malawi, unless its policies are more attractive than other countries. If Malawi can institute a no tax or low tax trade zone, more investors may come into the country, bringing with them capital to fuel economic growth, thus creating a greater social safety net for its citizens.

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