Maize prices soar in Malawi amid looming hunger

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Recent flooding washed away thousands of hectares of crops, especially maize.

By Moses Michael-Phiri

BLANTYRE, Malawi – The price of maize, Malawi’s staple food product, has gone up on fears of low crop yields following devastating floods that have recently hit the landlocked country in southeast Africa.

“Usually, this is when the price of maize goes down, as farmers are harvesting and the market is flooded with the commodity,” Goodwin Machelo, a maize trader and Blantyre resident, told The Anadolu Agency.

“What’s surprising is that the price is actually going up,” he noted.

Random checks by AA reporters in Blantyre and Lilongwe revealed that average maize prices have soared to 126 Malawi kwacha (about $0.30) per kilogram from 99 kwacha (about $0.23) in January – an increase of 27 percent.

Per-kilogram prices in flood-hit areas in particular have increased to as much as 140 kwacha (about $0.32).

Maize, the strategic grain crop in Malawi, is grown in all parts of the country. 

The crop accounts for more than 60 percent of total national food production and about 54 percent of households’ nutritional intake, according to the Third Integrated Household Survey conducted by Malawi’s National Statistical Office (NSO).

For the past ten years, the country has served as the breadbasket of southern Africa, producing an annual maize surplus of about 3.9 million metric tons, according to the Annual Crop Estimates recently released by the Ministry of Agriculture.

The maize surplus has pushed prices down by 100 percent, from 200 kwacha (roughly $0.47) in 2004.

Some maize has even been sold to neighboring Zimbabwe and Zambia.

-Drop-

However, recent flooding not only claimed 176 lives in January, but also washed away thousands of hectares of crops – especially maize.

“We conducted some assessments and the estimates showed a huge drop in maize production,” Tamani Nkhono, executive director of the Civil Society Agriculture Network, a local network of groups working in agriculture, told AA.

“Maize production will fall by 30 to 40 percent due to the floods,” he said.

“The flooding also washed away fertilizer in most of the crop fields, so output will be low,” Nkhono added.

A report by the Food Security Outlook estimates that one million households have been affected by the flooding and some 105,000 metric tons of maize washed away countrywide.

Nkhono said a dry spell that hit most of Malawi’s central region – the country’s agricultural hub – means most farmers in the region will see relatively low crop yields.

Adam Mwenye, a trader, said he had sent his business partners to villages to start buying grain from farmers.

“Maize crops have not yet dried [i.e., reached the required moisture content for storing], so farmers aren’t willing to sell,” he told AA.

Mwenye also noted the fact that some farmers weren’t sure they would reap enough to feed their families, and were therefore unwilling to sell their modest crops.

“We have to offer high prices this time of year,” he said. “Maize this year is expensive to buy from the farmer.”

He went on to assert that this would be reflected on maize prices.

“For me to recover the cost of purchasing the maize and transporting it to Blantyre, I will have no choice but to raise my prices,” Mwenye told AA.

-Hunger-

The Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee indicated last week that an estimated 615,837 people would need assistance in flood-hit areas for two to five months from March 2015 onwards, requiring the equivalent of 23,750 tons of maize.

On Thursday, the World Food Program (WFP) warned that some 616,000 flood victims would be in urgent need of food in the next two weeks.

It said it would need an additional $10.8 million to continue providing flood victims with their food needs.

The Center for Social Concern, a local think tank devoted to promoting justice and peace (created by the White Fathers of the Catholic Church), has warned that food security was set to worsen because some private traders were hoarding maize in hopes of making a hefty profit when maize stocks were depleted.

“We urge the government to consider setting up maize price floors and ceilings this year so that poor and vulnerable households will be protected from [soaring] prices and shocks caused by the impending food shortage,” center director Jos Kuppens told AA.

“Farming households should be encouraged to keep their maize harvest and not sell it to vendors immediately after harvesting,” he said.

NGOs have warned the government not to release its inventory of the strategic grain reserves on the market in large quantities because traders were pouncing on the commodity and hoarding it.

They have asked the government to wait until private traders have exhausted their supply before releasing its stock in large quantities.

Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe recently assured the country that the government was setting aside 8.5 billion kwacha (about $20 million) in the 2015/16 national budget for the purchase of maize for government inventories with a view to averting looming hunger.

(AA)

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