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A grain of rice can fix Malawi’s hunger woes

By Chris Nhlane (People's Daily Online)    18:23, July 30, 2019

“Zero Hunger by 2030” is the second target among the 17 ambitious United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015.

However, four years after adopting the SDGs the world body now panics over a surging global hunger crisis that puts at risk its agenda to eradicate starvation and malnutrition in the world in the next eleven years.

According to a February 2019 UN regional food security and nutrition index, Africa, for instance, had 257 million hungry people (out of 820 million worldwide), adding that sub-Saharan Africa held the biggest share of the continent’s non-food burden at 237 million people.

This is a cause for anxiety especially when as further UN statistics say hunger could hit 2 billion people by 2050 unless countries fix their food and agriculture systems urgently.

Malawi, ranked 87th out of 119 qualifying countries on the 2018 Global Hunger Index (GHI), faces recurrent maize production and consumption gaps due to floods, fall armyworms and frequent dry spells propelled by El-Nino fluctuations

With a 2018 GHI score of 26.5, Malawi is categorised as a serious hunger prone nation hence the need for more technologies and investments in high-yielding rice cultivation to cushion such periodic maize deficits.

In the past three years, hunger affected over 9 million people (6.5 million in 2016 and 3.3 million last year). These figures exclude the record high 1949 and 2002 famines that allegedly killed hundreds of foodless citizens in selected parts of the country.

According to UN’s integrated food security phase classification, famine exists if; at least 20 percent of households suffer from acute food shortages, when 30 percent of the population is acutely malnourished and if two in every 10,000 people (or four children) die of hunger daily.

Increased rice demand

Malawi’s current 17.5 million population has lately increased citizens’ maize consumption patterns and consumer needs for rice whose 2018 value estimates stood at $480 million (about K366 billion), according to the National Rice Development Platform (NRDP).

Figures from the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development show that Malawi produces 360,000 metric tonnes (MT) of rice a year, but has potential to produce 2.5 million tonnes.

However, insufficient modern technologies and inadequate funding cut the rice output potential and it cannot meet the growing local and foreign demand. Instead Malawi imports more rice from China, South Africa, Tanzania and India.

Limited access to farm inputs, climate change, shortage of improved seed varieties and shortage of good markets have also decreased rice yields over the years.

But during a stakeholders meeting in Lilongwe recently, NRDP Chairperson, David Kamchacha disclosed that demand for Malawi rice, including Kilombero, exceeds 800,000 metric tonnes (MT) on the global market but the country’s export capacity is only 20,000MT. He said under-production costs Malawi a lot in terms of forex earnings.

“What should be done is helping the farmer increase production. One of the issues is to look at the seed aspect, the implements that the farmers are using, and the whole value chain and address those gaps so that Malawi can increase rice production,” Kamchacha said.

Figures from Export Development Fund (EDF), a financing institution for export business, show that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia were each looking for 100,000MT while Zimbabwe wanted 56,000MT.

But Director of Crop Development in the Agriculture Ministry, Godfrey Ching’oma hinted earlier that government is putting in place strategies that would increase rice production in Malawi.

“Rice requires enough irrigation facilities to reach large scale production and currently government is investing in irrigation. Very soon, there will be the Shire Valley Irrigation Transformation Project which will use over 40,000 hectares of land, part of which would be for rice production,” Ching’oma said.

Lessons from China

On its part, China’s long history of rice cultivation has since the 1990s boosted yields for the cereal crop through scientific and technological improvements and boosts production and domestic consumption for its population.

Generally, agriculture food system contributes about 23.3 percent to China’s gross domestic product (GDP) and 30.1 percent to employment, according to the 2019 China Agriculture Sector Development Report.

Zhang Ning, director for the South-South Fund Program in the Chinese Ministry of Commerce told an international summit on China-Africa Rice Cooperation in Beijing in July 2019 that Malawi and other African countries need more agricultural technologies to boost rice productivity.

“There are obvious complementarities and potential in the China-Africa agricultural cooperation, especially in the rice value chain… The development of the rice industry is the foundation of a prosperous and stable Africa," Zhang said.

US-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored the event while Thomas Arokoyo, head of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) led the African team from Mozambique and Nigeria.

Ex-UN Secretary-General Koffi Annan founded Agra in 2006 to champion food and nutrition sufficiency in Malawi and seven other African countries.

In his speech, Arokoyo asked the Chinese government to introduce more agriculture demonstration facilities in Africa and boost the use of mechanised agriculture.

At the First China-Africa Trade and Economic Expo held in June in Changsha, the capital of central China’s Hunan Province, Malawi government officials and their counterparts from other African countries signed many agreements aimed at boosting cooperation with China, including modern agricultural technologies to help Africa achieve food security by 2030.

Certainly, Malawi can emulate China’s example on rice cultivation in the rice-growing field at Bwanje in Ntcheu, Bua in Nkhotakota, Madisi in Dowa, Santhe in Kasungu, Wovwe and Hara in Karonga and Limphasa in Nkhata Bay to build self-sufficiency for rice and curb future imports.

The author is a journalist working for Nation Newspapers in Malawi and is currently participating in the China Africa Press Centre 2019 programme in Beijing. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of People’s Daily Online. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Xian Jiangnan, Bianji)

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