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Cyclone Freddy leads to Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes in southern Malawi

  • Food Security Outlook Update
  • Malawi
  • April 2023
Cyclone Freddy leads to Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes in southern Malawi

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  • Key Messages
  • Current Situation
  • Updated Assumptions
  • Projected Outlook through September 2023
  • Seasonal Calendar for a Typical Year
  • Key Messages
    • Stressed (IPC Phase 2) and Crisis (IPC Phase 3) food security outcomes are likely to persist through September in most southern Malawi districts due to the impacts of Tropical Cyclone Freddy, which occurred between March 11 and 13, 2023, and subsequent above-average rainfall. The cyclone caused significant damage to infrastructure, loss of life, injury, and displacement of over 659,000 people. Additionally, more than 200,000 hectares of cropland were destroyed. In contrast, households in central and northern Malawi are expected to experience Minimal/None (IPC Phase1) food security outcomes during the outlook period. This is because they are likely to access adequate food and income from their own-produced agricultural commodities.

    • The 2022/23 production season in Malawi will likely be below average, particularly for the maize crop, which contributes over 70 percent of the national food requirements. In conjunction with reduced access to fertilizers, the impacts of Tropical Cyclone Freddy are likely to significantly reduce crop harvests, especially in southern Malawi, the worst cyclone-affected area. FEWS NET predicts that maize production at the national level will be about 20 to 30 percent below average, which is likely to exacerbate food insecurity in the affected areas.

    • Malawi's economic growth has continued to be slow, which is affecting both the macro- and micro-economy. Inflation has continued to be high, with the April 2023 annual inflation rate standing at 28.8 percent, up from 15.7 percent in April 2022. Despite the start of the tobacco marketing season, Malawi is still facing a foreign currency deficit, which is only enough to cover one month of imports, compared to the set minimum threshold of three months. The worsening economic situation has led to the rising costs of goods and food commodities, which is further compounded by low fuel imports, leading to high fuel prices and periodic nationwide shortages. The fuel shortages are driving higher transportation costs and increased production costs, exerting upward pressure on the prices of food and other goods and likely restricting access to food and income for poor and very poor households.

    • Throughout the outlook period, food prices are likely to continue to trend higher than the previous year and the five-year average. Given below-average carryover stocks from the previous season and anticipated reduced production this season, supplies in markets are likely to be below average. Early reliance on market purchases by households that produced nothing or had all their crops washed away by flooding will atypically increase demand, thereby putting upward pressure on prices. FEWS NET price projections indicate that maize prices will range from 500 MWK to 1,100 MWK per kilogram from May to September 2023, which is more than double or three times higher than prices at the same time last year and the five-year average. These high prices will significantly impact household food access and consumption, particularly for poor and very poor households.

    Current Situation

    Typical seasonal improvements in food security that occur at the start of the April-August harvesting period in Malawi have been significantly disrupted by a combination of factors, including the impacts of Tropical Cyclone Freddy, extended dry spells in northern Malawi (Karonga district), limited access to agricultural inputs, and high food and non-food inflation. These factors have had a negative impact on crop production, causing a reduction in food supplies and higher prices in local markets. The destruction of infrastructure, damage to crop fields, and erosion of main livelihood assets for households in several districts due to the cyclone will likely have long-lasting impacts on food security in severely affected areas. The cyclone has also caused the displacement of over 659,000 people and death of 679 people (Figure 1).

    Figure 1

    Population affected by Tropical Cyclone
    Population affected by Tropical Cyclone

    Source: Department of Disaster Management Affairs

    The disruption of the anticipated harvest season in southern Malawi due to the tropical cyclone has resulted in significant crop losses (Figure 2) and has had a profound impact on local livelihoods in the affected districts. FEWS NET observed extensive damage to crops, livestock, and income-earning opportunities when conducting field assessments in March and April in cyclone-affected areas such as Phalombe, Nsanje, Chikwawa, Blantyre, Mulanje, and Balaka districts. FEWS NET estimates that total crop losses are in the range of 30 to 35 percent, on average, in southern districts; however, in some localized areas within the southern districts, crop losses were observed to be as high as 90 percent. FEWS NET also found that many individuals have turned to charcoal production and firewood sales as a means of income generation. However, the demand for charcoal and firewood is lower due to reduced purchasing power among households, resulting from the overall lack of income and the damaged transportation infrastructure. The damaged roads and bridges have hindered the bulk transportation of charcoal to markets, making it difficult for producers to sell their products. Therefore, the oversupply of charcoal in the market has led to lower prices, further exacerbating the income challenges faced by those engaged in charcoal production. Moreover, traders have lost a significant amount of their capital, and the damaged roads limited the flow of commodities from Mozambique, reduced trade capacity, and contribute to increased food prices.

    Figure 2

    Crop fields damaged by TC Freddy
    Crop fields damaged by TC Freddy

    Source: Nsanje District Agriculture Office

    The continued economic instability in Malawi, characterized by forex shortages, persistent fuel shortages, and high inflation, is also driving food insecurity, especially in areas that are concurrently facing weather shocks. Although tobacco sales have generated significant revenue, it is not enough to improve the country's foreign currency reserves to the required level. The shortage of fuel is increasing production costs for farmers, which is in turn reducing their level of income from crop sales and contributing to high food prices. Although maize grain is available in the markets, high demand due to the loss of crops in southern Malawi is also contributing to significantly high prices, which are increasingly unaffordable for most poor and very poor households. The situation is particularly severe in southern Malawi, where maize prices are trending at 835 MWK per kilogram compared to around 300 MWK per kilogram in April 2022. In central and northern Malawi, prices are also high, trending around 644 MWK per kilogram compared to 130 MWK per kilogram at the same time in the previous year.

    Humanitarian assistance programming for Malawi’s lean season concluded in March, ending the typical five-month implementation cycle. The timing of the end of deliveries coincides with the start of the harvest in April. However, households in cyclone-affected areas do not have access to a normal harvest and they no longer have regular access to assistance to meet their food needs. Currently, only sporadic assistance is being provided to the cyclone-affected areas, with households receiving assistance on an ad hoc basis with inconsistent ration sizes and frequency, at a level that is inadequate to fill their food consumption gaps. The level of assistance is currently insufficient to prevent food consumption gaps or lead to a change in the assessed level of acute food insecurity phase classifications.

    FEWS NET assesses that Stressed (IPC Phase 2) and Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes are currently ongoing in most of southern Malawi, with Nsanje, Chikwawa, Phalombe, Mulanje, Zomba, Machinga, Mangochi, Blantyre, and Chiradzulu being the most affected by the cyclone. The Inter-Agency Post Disaster Assessment conducted by the Department of Disaster Management Affairs also suggest that populations in the affected areas, which represent about 10 percent of Malawi's population, require immediate humanitarian food assistance as well as assistance with basic non-food needs to restart farming activities. Many households in the affected areas face severe food shortages and are consuming around one meal per day at the start of the harvest season, with many resorting to withdrawing their children from school and selling their livestock at unsustainable levels to address the pressing food needs of the households.

    Meanwhile, in most of central and northern Malawi, cumulative rainfall performance was broadly favorable, leading to positive crop production prospects and an improving trend in food security. The start of the harvest season in April is contributing to an increase in food availability and access at the household level, with most households expected to harvest an adequate supply of food from their own-produced crops. Additionally, the favorable conditions have increased labor opportunities in the agricultural sector, allowing households to earn income and further enhance their food security. As a result, the level of food insecurity among these households is assessed to be Minimal (IPC Phase 1) in most of northern Malawi, with the exception of Karonga, where crop losses occurred due to dry spells, leading to Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes. In central Malawi, some districts transitioned to Stressed (IPC Phase 2) as harvesting is started but the areas also face below-average income, depletion of own food stock and localized crop damages by the cyclone followed by heavy rainfall that caused flooding.  

    Updated Assumptions

    Revisions to the assumptions used to develop FEWS NET’s most likely scenario from the Malawi Food Security Outlook, February to September 2023 are detailed below; all other assumptions remain unchanged:

    • Crop production: Low rates of fertilizer application, low access to improved seeds, nutrient leaching, and crop destruction due to Tropical Cyclone Freddy are all contributing to a below-average harvest in 2023, with the largest local losses occurring in the south. According to first-round and second-round agricultural production estimates by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, total national crop production is projected to be lower than last year and the five-year average. In southern districts, the damages caused by Tropical Cyclone Freddy coincided with crop maturity, leaving limited time for crops to recover and driving further production reductions. Additionally, the cyclone has destroyed irrigable land and damaged irrigation schemes and equipment, reducing the prospects of harvests from irrigated cultivation. FEWS NET projects that total national crop production will be approximately 20 percent below average.
    • Income from crop sales: Below-average crop production is expected to reduce household incomes from crop sales across all wealth groups, with the largest proportional reduction in income occurring among poor and very poor households in southern Malawi. Most rural households in southern Malawi are likely to have limited stocks of staple crops for sale and limited cash crops such as tobacco, cotton, soybeans, and legumes to compensate for the loss of maize.
    • Income from agricultural labor: Below-average crop production is expected to result in reduced demand for agricultural labor, as better-off and middle-income households who typically hire labor will have a lower need for labor as well as reduced income to hire labor. As a result, incomes from agricultural labor are likely to be below average among very poor and poor households that depend on this income source during the harvest period, particularly in southern Malawi and, to a lesser extent, parts of central Malawi.
    • Other income sources: The impacts of Tropical Cyclone Freddy are expected to increase competition for income from limited self-employment opportunities such as charcoal, firewood, and handicraft sales, leading to an overall reduction in income from these sources, especially in less productive areas of southern Malawi. As a result, the income from these activities is expected to be below average during the outlook period. This will particularly affect poor and very poor households who rely on these activities for additional income. Moreover, damage to roads and public infrastructure limits market access, further exacerbating the food insecurity situation.
    • Maize stocks: National maize supplies will likely be below average due to reduced production resulting from lower use of fertilizers as well as the impacts of Tropical Cyclone Freddy in southern Malawi. Malawi is already reporting very low carryover stocks in the Strategic Grain Reserves (SGR), with an estimated 60,000 MT of maize at the end of April 2023 against the required 217,000 MT. The Agriculture Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC) and private traders have negligible stocks to add to the carryover volumes, as most maize grain from the 2022 production season has been sold, with traders already starting to buy and sell maize from the current (2023) harvests, which is atypical.
    • Maize imports: The expected acute maize grain shortage is likely to attract more maize imports into the country to meet the increased demand. Malawi is already experiencing a positive net maize import through informal cross-border trade, and this trend is likely to continue. Despite the increase in imports, prices are still expected to rise due to the atypical increase in demand for maize following crop production losses. However, the ability of households to access maize will depend on their income levels and purchasing power, which is expected to be limited for very poor and poor households.
    • Maize prices:  The national average price of Maize is expected to be around 600 to 700 MWK/kg, up to September, driven by a poor harvest in southern Malawi, below-average production, and increase in the price of agricultural inputs. Additionally, rising fuel and transportation costs at the above-expected rate will increase the cost of production for small and medium-scale enterprises, which may result in reduced production, leading to income reduction.
    • Humanitarian food assistance: According to available reports from WFP, there is a funding gap of 48 million USD for the humanitarian response plans that aim to assist over 1.6 million people affected by Cyclone Freddy. It is most likely that humanitarian food assistance will be delivered to only around 700,000 people over the next three months, who will likely receive rations that cover less than 25 percent of their monthly caloric needs. A large portion of the affected population will remain without adequate support, and it is expected that the level of humanitarian assistance will be insufficient to mitigate the severity of the food insecurity classification at the area-level.  

    Projected Outlook through September 2023

    In a typical year, April marks the end of the lean season when households start accessing harvests, which improves food and income availability and supports improvement to Minimal (IPC Phase 1). In southern Malawi, however, Stressed (IPC Phase 2) and Crisis (IPC Phase 3) food security outcomes are likely to continue during the April to May period this year due to below-average harvests, high food prices, and other reductions to household income related to damage from Cyclone Freddy, particularly in the districts of Blantyre, Chiradzulu, Mulanje, Mwanza, Nsanje, Phalombe, Zomba, Chikwawa, Mangochi, and Machinga. Poor households in southern Malawi are likely to have limited access to income due to severe disruptions to livelihood systems by Tropical Cyclone Freddy and infrastructural damage constraining access to markets and increasing food prices. These outcomes are likely to persist throughout the harvest period, as the limited/inconsistent humanitarian assistance program that has been put in place is insufficient to satisfy food and basic income needs.

    From June to September, Crisis (IPC Phase 3) will likely persist in the districts of southern Malawi that experience the highest crop and livelihood losses due to Cyclone Freddy. Most cyclone-affected households will likely run out of their own-produced food stocks between June and September and increasingly rely on purchasing food from the market as their main source of food. However, their income will be insufficient for them to purchase sufficient food amid persistently high food prices, and they will most likely experience food consumption gaps and engage in negative coping strategies. Meanwhile, the conclusion of the harvest – which ends in July – will drive improvement to Stressed (IPC Phase 2) in the districts where the cyclone’s impacts were less severe. These districts sustained more limited damage from the cyclone, benefitting from crop diversity, different crop growth stages, and farms located at higher elevations; they are also in a better position to plant crops for the winter production cycle, with the winter harvest starting in September. Localized areas of Machinga, Mangochi and parts of Blantyre are expected to transition from Crisis (IPC Phase 3) to Stressed (IPC Phase 2), while improvement to Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes is expected in the districts of Thyolo, Mwanza, Neno, Balaka, Ntcheu, and parts of Zomba.

    In contrast, households in most central and northern Malawi districts will likely experience Minimal/None (IPC Phase 1) food security outcomes throughout the outlook period as they increasingly access adequate food and incomes from own crop production. Households will also be selling own-produced food and cash crops, which will likely improve access to income, food, and non-food items. Central and northern Malawi produces diversified crops such as maize, groundnuts, sweet potatoes, and beans that are not only used for consumption but are also sold as an income source. Production of cash crops such as tobacco will likely increase the income of the households and provide labor opportunities for poor and very poor households, supporting their access to food. However, households in Karonga district of northern Malawi are likely to face Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes due to prolonged dry spells in February and March that affected crop production and flooding caused additional loss in late April. Additionally, some areas in the central Malawi districts of Salima and Nkhotakota in the Southern Lake Shore livelihood zone will be transitioning to Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes due to below-average food and income from various sources, including crop production.

    Seasonal Calendar for a Typical Year
    Seasonal Calendar of atypical year

    Source: FEWS NET

    Recommended Citation: FEWS NET. Malawi Food Security Outlook Update, April 2023: Cyclone Freddy leads to Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes in southern Malawi, 2023.

    This Food Security Outlook Update provides an analysis of current acute food insecurity conditions and any changes to FEWS NET's latest projection of acute food insecurity outcomes in the specified geography over the next six months. Learn more here.

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