Africa: More Drought Across Sub-Saharan Africa


Withering maize fields for miles — this is what scores of smallholding subsistence farmers are facing in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Government subsidies can help only so much, as solutions prove slow to implement.

Rain has finally returned to Malawi after weeks and weeks of severe drought — but it’s too little too late for local farmer Saidi M’madi.

In Malawi’s southern region of Mangochi, the father-of-six stares out at his field, feeling like all of his work in recent months was completely in vain.

“In December, we lost everything. So we uprooted what was planted and started all over again,” M’madi told DW.

“A lot of crops are destroyed. I don’t know what to do,” he adds despondently, knowing that the recent rainfall cannot revive any of his crop after two consecutive tries.

As M’madi ponders on what the future may hold, his only hope is for the government to continue to step in as best it can and help subsidize farmers.

Malawi is currently reaching out to 4.4 million people, according to figures published by the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) in early August last year.

Those assisted by the government amount to about 22% of Malawi’s population of 19.6 million — up by 15% compared to the previous year.

Meanwhile in a joint statement, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), point out that after several droughts, Malawi is now “experiencing the worst food insecurity in a decade,” as 90% of cultivated land in Malawi depends on rain.

National disaster in Zambia

The UN bodies note that elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, there are similar levels of hardship being experienced by many nations.

The two agencies estimate that 27.4 million people in southern Africa will face hunger in the next six months due to poor harvests following a series of 14 extreme droughts within the past two decades — far more than on any other continent.

In fact, the drought crisis comes two years after 37 out of 54 African countries were rated by the Global Hunger Index as reaching levels of hunger described as “serious” or worse.

The areas facing immediate threats include Madagascar and Zimbabwe, according to the UN.

In an article on NewsDay, a daily newspaper and online news platform in Zimbabwe, a 69-year-old woman with 20 years of experience in farming describes the unprecedented nature of the situation as “one is one of the worst droughts I have ever seen.”

“Last season was poor, and now we don’t know what we will eat,” she adds.

In neighboring Zambia, up to 70% percent of agricultural fields have also been experiencing similar dry spells in the country’s Eastern Province, according to recent assessments.

Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema has declared drought a national disaster after 84 out of 116 districts saw no rains for over five weeks, adding that more than one million families of Zambian farmers will be affected.

Peter Zulu, the acting chief agriculture economist in the Ministry of Agriculture, told the Lusaka Times daily newspaper recently that maize crops were particularly affected, with little hope for any meaningful yield.

Irrigation to the rescue

According to AGRA, an African-led partnership which strives to ensure that African can become self-sufficient in agriculture, food production in sub-Saharan Africa depends almost exclusively on rain-fed agriculture.

However, this leaves farmers and rural communities vulnerable to increasingly erratic rainfall patterns and extreme climate conditions.

AGRA notes that although irrigation in Africa has the potential to boost agricultural productivity by 50%, the area currently equipped for irrigation is estimated at only 13 million hectares, which makes up just 6% of the total cultivated area on the continent.

This compares to about 14% in Latin America of land equipped to be irrigated in Latin America and 37% in Asia.

In 2018, the Malabo Montpellier Panel, which is a group of international agriculture experts focused on food security in Africa, published a report highlighting that meeting irrigation needs has to become a top policy and long-term investment priority across Africa, showcasing that six African nations including Mali, Kenya and South Africa were on the right trajectory.

However, that still leaves the vast majority of the continent trailing behind.

‘Mega farms’ in Malawi

Back in Malawi, Professor Zachary Kasomekera, chairperson on the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) Council, goes even a step further: He says that national governments should start introducing large-scale crop production initiatives in a model which he calls “mega farms.”

“My take and emphasis on this is that countries in sub-Saharan Africa must prioritize water resources and management. It is important that irrigation is well funded. That way, we will do away with the persistent food insecurities,” he told DW.

This comes after Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera launched a “mega farm” initiative in his country last year.

Among those assisting the program is the FAO, which is working with the Malawi an Government to rehabilitate 34 irrigation schemes. The UN agency is also increasing access to financing solution to 127,000 smallholder farmers in rural areas to adopt climate-smart technologies.

From malnutrition to malpractice

The government hopes that the “mega farm” initiative will help rewrite the region’s food insecurity narrative. However, previous government initiatives to bolster food security in Malawi have only yielded limited success:

The Affordable Inputs Program (AIP), first introduced as the Farm Inputs Subsidy Program (FISP) in 2004, was intended to increase agricultural productivity and support income-strapped households.

However, the most recent implementation investigations into AIP published last month in an interim update paint a grim picture: Ombudsman Grace Malera said there were reports of widespread malpractice, which heavily affect the program’s stated goals.

“The costs associated with the program generally exceed the benefits,” she said.

Minister of Agriculture Sam Kawale said he would wait for the full report to act; meanwhile Finance Minister Simplex Chithyola Banda announced he still planned to increase the AIP budget by over a third to the equivalent of just under $100 million.

The anti-poverty charity ActionAid meanwhile also notes that AIP is one of the main reasons for ongoing budget deficits at the Ministry of Agriculture.

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