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Stephen Carr weighs in on Malawi fertilizer subsidy debate

3 January 2011

Technology on a Malawian Farm, Thyolo 2008

Owen Barder’s recent blog post, Malawi Success and Donor Fallibility, has generated a lot of great discussion about the fertilizer subsidy program in Malawi. I wondered whether the post might have mischaracterized donor attitudes towards the subsidy:

Malawi had suffered greatly from famine. It wasn’t my experience that donors in the country were at all opposed to the subsidies (except, perhaps how they were politically manipulated, esp. the season before the election). Maybe the rhetoric back in their home countries was anti-subsidy, but in Malawi, donors didn’t want to see more famine.

But apparently that statement seemed to paint me as pro-subsidy, which led to discussion onto whether the fertilizer subsidy actually helped anything except the president’s hold on power. Take, for instance, this comment by Matt, a former ODI fellow who worked in Malawi and is now a DPhil student at Oxford, blogging at Aid Thoughts:

It was drought that brought the previous famines, and it isn’t clear that fertiliser is going to do much the next time there is a drought. So instead of investing in long term drought-resistant strategies like irrigation, the government has preferred a complete political win (each bag of fertiliser is a vote in the next election).

In my comments, I kept referring to Stephen Carr, a gentleman who invited some friends and I to tea at his home in Zomba in November 2008. Stephen Carr has lived and worked in Malawi for more than two decades, primarily in agriculture. I walked away from that afternoon tea convinced that smallholder farmers needed fertilizer, but unfortunately for my earlier comments to Owen’s blog post, I wasn’t very adept at articulating why. But then, this morning, I see that he’s made a comment on the blog post that gives a really helpful primer on the agricultural situation in Malawi:

Responding to comments on the impact of drought on food production in Malawi I think that it would help to note that Malawi is in the wettest period which it has experienced for almost six hundred years (evidenced by the dramatic rise in the level of Lake Malawi). In consequence there have only been two years in the past 50 in which a shortage of rainfall had an impact on national maize production and one year (2000/01) when excess rainfall led to waterlogging (not flood) which seriously reduced production. Naturally there have been districts which have a shortage of rain in a year when others have had an excellent crop but a recent Ministry of Agriculture table plotting rainfall against national maize production revealed virtually no significant relationship whilst a graph which plotted fertiliser availability against national production produced a much closer match. It is of course true that in any country the use of fertiliser cannot avoid serious crop loss in the face of a real drought on the other hand there is plenty of evidence that strong, well nourished plants are more able to withstand shorter periods of stress better than those which are poorly nourished.
Malawi is blessed with very little in the way of significant rivers which run downhill sufficiently to provide large areas of gravity fed irrigation. The alternative is to use motorised pumps to drive water up-hill from the lakes in order to irrigate. With a long and expensive transport line for its fuel it is well appreciated that using oil based fuels to pump water on to maize fields is guaranteed to lose money. The alternative is foot operated pumps in favourable areas and there is an increasing number of these but the potential for this form of irrigation is strictly limited. For the foreseeable future the great bulk of the nation’s food supply will come from the 2.4 million farm families who rely on rainfed crop production. Their dominant constraint is a shortage of soil nutrients. Efforts to restore these by organic methods have had limited success in a country where only a tiny fraction of farmers own livestock and where the density of the population precludes any kind of improved fallowing to restore fertility. In consequence farmers have to follow the whole rest of the farming world and restore nutrients with fertiliser until scientists come up with some alternative way of producing food under conditions of permanent cultivation. As nobody has been able to identify a cash crop for 75% of the smallholder population they have little cash with which to buy fertiliser and good seed. Without the subsidy the country would sink back to widespread hunger and a 22% child death rate which used to be its lot.

Carr knows what he’s talking about when it comes to Malawi. If you want to learn more about his work (including time lived in Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania as well), you might want to read Stephen’s book, Surprised by Laughter.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 March 2011 2:22 am

    Dear colleagues, I must declare that I am a Malawian,born and raised in Malawi, studied agriculture and worked in food aid humanitarian industry during the 2001/02 food crisis. It is clear that in Malawi fertilizer use in maize has contributed to the increases in yield that has seen the country boasting of food security. The others who are arguing that fertilizer did not do the miracle, are doing so because they do not know the agronomy and physiology of maize plants. Unlike other staples of tubers and plantains, maize plants require significant amount of fertilizers for it to give an economical yield level. Without fertilizer, even if you supply the best moisture (either rainfall or iirgation), the yield will always be sub-optimal, meaning that all your annual labours and drudgery will not get paid back. IN ANY COUNTRY THAT HAS HIGHER YIELDS ON MAIZE, FERTILIZERS ARE INVOLVED IN THE EQUATION!

    Irrigation investment for maize??? It is not economical! Maize prices at both local and international markets can not pay back the investments in irrigation. Simple economics! Simple irrigation technologies that were rampant in Malawi during the starvation years were just increasing workload to the already labour-poor Malawians without much additionality. Almost half of the hundreds of thousands of the treadle pumps distributed were not used, either that they could not work in practice or that the labour demand was far beyod the capacity of recipients. Again, they drove peasants into cultivation of marginal areas leading to environmental degradation hence unsustainable. I WANT TO LEARN WHICH COUNTRY CAN EXPORT MAIZE USING CRUDE IRRIGATION TECHNIQUES SUCH AS THE TREADLE PUMPS!

    The cost of hunger in Malawi is far more than political as some might be inclined to think! I recall people camping at the ADMARC maize selling market waiting for trucks to bring maize from South Africa. People had money to buy the maize grains but they were no where to be found. The problem was more chaotic in remote areas where food delivery truck could not reach because they often got stuck in unpassble small roads. Most people starved dangerously and can not wish to be reminded of those days.

    Rainfall and fertilizer: is it a coincidence! It is indeed a coincidence but for the better of poor Malawians. With use of crude irrigation technologies (treadle pumps), rainfall variability in uninsurable risk while fertilizer use can be contained with subsidy.


    Malawi’s food policy is about importation and subsidy of either fertilizer or maize grain. If the choice is between fertilizer aid and food security, then I would go for fertilizer aid as it has demonstrated superiority over food aid that was rampant in the pre-subsidy period. Actually during food aid food policy period people were starving so it is not an option al at all.


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