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Crisis (IPC Phase 3) persists in south, but food assistance remains inadequate

  • Food Security Outlook Update
  • Malawi
  • August 2023
Crisis (IPC Phase 3) persists in south, but food assistance remains inadequate

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  • Key Messages
  • Current Situation
  • Seasonal Calendar for a Typical Year
  • Updated Assumptions
  • Projected Outlook through January 2024
  • Key Messages
    • Southern districts of Malawi heavily impacted by Tropical Cyclone Freddy and subsequent flooding are expected to face Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes. These areas include Chikwawa, Nsanje, Phalombe, Balaka, and parts of Mwanza, Neno, Zomba, and Blantyre districts. Districts in the southern part of the country that suffered relatively less damage from the cyclone, such as the Shire Highlands livelihood zone, are anticipated to face Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes due to below-average harvests resulting from dry spells and flooding in localized lakeshore areas in central and northern Malawi. In contrast, FEWS NET assesses household cereal stocks and income from cash crops will most likely continue to support Minimal/None (IPC Phase 1) food security outcomes in most of central and northern Malawi.

    • Even though the main harvest was concluded in August, the country's food reserves are depleting at a faster rate than usual, and they are inadequate to meet the increasing consumption demand. Moreover, the prices of maize have experienced a significant surge, showing a 110 percent increase compared to the previous year and 230 percent increase compared to the five-year average. This upward price increment is expected to persist, with a projected additional rise of 20-30 percent over the upcoming two to three months. The escalation in prices, which is also reflected by high food inflation, is driven by multiple factors, including a below-average harvest, below-normal food reserves at the national level, and a heightened demand for maize.

    • In the upcoming lean season, which is anticipated to start earlier than initially predicted in November, households are expected to exhaust their food reserves and turn to buying food, amid elevated food prices. As farmers’ resources become limited, it is challenging for them to obtain seeds and access to subsidized fertilizer, putting them in a difficult position. As a consequence, it is likely that farmers will reduce the area planted during the 2023/24 crop growing season and also shift their focus to cultivating alternative crops such as soya beans. Moreover, the increased costs of fuel are expected to further add more pressure on expenditures for agricultural inputs, food and non-food costs.   

    • Climate forecasts suggest increasing confidence in a strong El Niño by late 2023. In Malawi, El Niño is typically correlated with below-average rainfall in the south and above-average rainfall in the north. Based on historical trends during El Niño years, the onset of the main rainy season between October and December will most likely be delayed with mixed performance, especially in the south. Irregular rainfall will most likely compound the impacts of reduced access to agricultural inputs on planted area, which will in turn affect income-earning among poor households who rely on agricultural labor opportunities. Close monitoring of rainfall totals and distribution will be required to assess the severity of adverse impacts on cropping conditions for the 2023/24 harvest. There is particular concern for areas in the south that already experienced significant crop losses due to cyclones in 2022 and 2023. Both the government and donors should proactively prepare for an anticipated surge in food assistance needs in 2024.

    Current Situation

    2023 crop production: Production totals from the 2023 main harvest, which typically concludes in August, are estimated to be below average on the national level, compared to both last-year and five-year average. At the sub-national level, production totals ranged from near average in the Northern Region to below average in the Central and Southern regions.[1] The most significant factor resulting in low production was Tropical Cyclone Freddy, which caused widespread destruction of infrastructure, crops, and household and market food stocks in the southern districts and, to a lesser extent, some central districts. In addition to the immediate damage, cyclone-induced flooding caused soil erosion and waterlogging that made it difficult for farmers to harvest and use their produce effectively. During a field assessment conducted in March and April in southern Malawi, FEWS NET confirmed significant reductions in essential crop production in areas directly impacted by the cyclone (Figure 1) in Muloza of Mulanje district, where households reported at least a 30 percent loss in production and some households reported a total loss. Other challenges affecting production totals included supply and financial access constraints that limited household use of fertilizers and improved seeds, leading to substantial declines in crop production in Chikwawa, Balaka, parts of Mwanza, Neno, Zomba, and Blantyre districts. These production setbacks diminished the availability of maize, a staple crop in Malawi, affecting short- to medium-term food access, mainly for poor households. Based on the scale of crop losses observed during the field assessment conducted in March and April, FEWS NET estimates a majority of poor households currently have own-produced food stocks but will exhaust them by end of September and will depend on the market to access their basic foods. 

    [1] FEWS NET has based its conclusions on multiple field assessments, field-based partner assessments, and analysis of historical crop production data. 

    Figure 1

    Tropical Cyclone Freddy damage in April 2023 – Muloza, Mulanje
    Tropical Cyclone Freddy damage in April 2023 – Muloza, Mulanje

    Source: FEWS NET

    National maize balance: FEWS NET assesses that the combined national maize stocks from the 2023 harvest, carryover stocks from the 2022 harvest, and imported stocks are expected to fall short in meeting the demands of both consumers and processing industries during the 2023/24 marketing year. As of August 2023, the available maize stocks held by the Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC) and the National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA) amounted to approximately 70,000 metric tons, which is significantly below the targeted quantity of 220,000 metric tons. Furthermore, the government plan to procure around 20,000 metric tons still leaves a deficit of nearly 50 percent from reaching the required average quantity. At the same time, FEWS NET cross-border monitoring indicates an expansion in informal cross-border trade of maize grain, particularly from the northern region of Malawi to Tanzania. This expansion is being driven by attractive prices and more favorable exchange rates against the local currency (MWK). With the ongoing rise in regional maize prices and the expected continuous demand from institutions such as ADMARC and NFRA, particularly for any government intervention during the lean season, it is likely that market food stocks will remain below average levels.

    Macroeconomic conditions: Malawi’s economic situation has worsened as the tobacco marketing season, a key income source, concluded. Despite selling 120,525 MT of tobacco and earning around 300 million USD in foreign exchange during the 2023 season, 40 percent higher than last year and 10 percent higher than five-year average, this income boost was not sufficient to make significant difference on national economy. The country faced an increasing trade deficit of 272 million USD in Quarter 2 of 2023. Foreign exchange shortages have led to high prices for imports, driving inflation. Prices of both domestic and imported goods have surged, causing year-on-year inflation to rise to 28 percent in July. The scarcity of foreign exchange has also caused fuel shortages since March 2023, further driving inflation due to higher production and transactional costs. Moreover, this scarcity threatens the government’s ability to import fertilizer that is subsidized for subsistence farmers. Overall, the Reserve Bank of Malawi’s monetary policy report in July 2023 projects continued exchange rate depreciation and inflation due to external factors and high food and fuel prices. Taken together, there is concern that persistent challenges with access to inputs will exacerbate the impacts of forecasted erratic and below-average rainfall due to El Niño on crop production during the 2023/24 production season. 

    Maize prices: The below-average harvest, challenges affecting maize trade and marketing, and macroeconomic conditions have pushed maize prices in Malawi above both last year’s prices and the five-year average. In July, prices ranged from 500 to 600 MWK per kilogram, a significant increase from the five-year average of 140 to 185 MWK per kilogram. On average, prices rose by 13 percent rise compared to June, nearly 110 percent compared to the same period last year, and nearly 235 percent above the five-year average. On the regional level, maize prices averaged 560 MWK per kilogram (kg) in northern Malawi, 600 MWK/kg in central Malawi, and 630 MWK/kg in southern Malawi. Furthermore, the average national price of beans has also moved upward, marking an increase of nearly 10 percent, 25 percent, and 80 percent over the previous month, previous year, and five-year average, respectively. Additionally, the average national price of rice has shown around a 5 percent, 50 percent, and 120 percent rise over the same comparative periods.

    Humanitarian food assistance: The provision of humanitarian assistance has remained minimal since June, which is insufficient to bridge the gaps in food consumption for the households experiencing severe food insecurity. The joint effort between the government and WFP to supply humanitarian assistance in cyclone-affected regions concluded in June. There has been implementation of irregular and insufficient humanitarian assistance into the immediate pre-harvest period. Traditionally, humanitarian food assistance programs commence in the lean season, around October. These programs are typically developed based on the analysis conducted by the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) as part of the IPC assessment. At present, there is no confirmation from either the government or humanitarian partners regarding funding for a humanitarian assistance program during the upcoming lean season. Proactive preparation for an increased demand for humanitarian assistance is essential, as the number of households requiring humanitarian food assistance is expected to increase significantly.

    Seasonal Calendar for a Typical Year
    Seasonal Calendar for a Typical Year

    Source: FEWS NET

    Updated Assumptions

    The assumptions used to develop FEWS NET’s most likely scenario in the Malawi Food Security Outlook Report from June to January 2024 remain unchanged, except the cholera outbreak.

    • Cholera outbreak: The cholera outbreak in Malawi, which threatened food security, has diminished significantly. As of August 16, 2023, the Malawi Ministry of Health officially declared that the cholera outbreak, which initially emerged in March 2022 and was subsequently categorized as a public health emergency by the Malawian government in December 2022, has been effectively controlled. While progress is being made in restoring water and sanitation services and recovering from the damages caused by Cyclone Freddy, this is expected to extend over a longer timeframe. Reduced access to improved water and sanitation facilities may likely bring a possibility of an elevated risk of cholera resurgence during the rainy season and continued preventive measures will be crucial to prevent the reoccurrence of cholera cases.
    • October 2023 to March 2024 main rainfall season: Climate forecasts suggest increasing confidence in a strong El Niño, which is typically correlated with below-average rainfall in southern Africa, by late 2023. Based on analysis of rainfall performance in years with El Niño conditions, it is most likely that the start of the main rainy season between October and December will be delayed with mixed performance. While forecast models are currently inconclusive on rainfall performance beyond December, FEWS NET anticipates rainfall deficits will be significant in southern Malawi based on historical analyses of rainfall performance from December to February in years with strong El Niño conditions (1982/83, 1991/92, 1997/98, 2009/10, and 2015/16) (Figure 2).

    Figure 2

    Median rainfall totals from December to February in years with strong El Niño conditions, shown as a percent of the 40-year average. The selected analog years include 1982/83, 1991/92, 1997/98, 2009/10, and 2015/16
    Median rainfall totals from December to February in years with strong El Niño conditions, shown as a percent of the 40-year average. The selected analog years include  1982/83, 1991/92, 1997/98, 2009/10, and 2015/16.

    Source: FEWS NET/USGS

    Projected Outlook through January 2024

    Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes are expected to persist through January in the districts of southern Malawi most affected by Cyclone Freddy (Nsanje, Chikwawa, Balaka, Phalombe, parts of Mwanza, Neno, Zomba, and Blantyre districts). These areas suffered significant crop and livelihood losses due to the cyclone. Many poor households in these areas are expected to rapidly deplete their own-produced food stocks from the recent harvest and will increasingly, heavily rely on market purchases for food. At the same time, income from other sources – such as petty trade and agricultural labor – will be difficult to expand given both prevailing macroeconomic challenges and the likelihood that delayed and poorly distributed rainfall during the 2023/24 production season, linked to a strong El Niño, will negatively affect labor demand. Taken together, poor households are expected to have insufficient income to purchase their minimum kilocalorie needs, particularly amid consistently high food prices. Without humanitarian assistance, these households are likely to face food consumption gaps and will likely resort to negative coping strategies in order to buy food, such as withdrawing children from school and selling productive assets. The frequency and severity of such food consumption gaps will only worsen as the lean season, which starts in October, progresses. This situation stems from consecutive poor production seasons due to the effects of Tropical Cyclones Anna and Gombe in 2022 and Freddy in 2023. These events have led to below-average agricultural production, affecting the availability of household food sources/supplies and reducing the output of cash crops for sale. Additionally, the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Freddy has adversely impacted microeconomic activities, further restricting household income, particularly for very poor households. 

    In districts with less severe impact from Cyclone Freddy, especially in parts of Blantyre, Zomba, Machinga, and Mangochi districts within the Shire Highlands livelihood zone, households are expected to experience Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes. They are expected to consume their own-produced food through September, after which point their primary source of food will likely be market purchases. Income from labor employment opportunities is likely to be limited against high food prices.

    Meanwhile, households in most central and northern Malawi districts are expected to face Minimal (IPC Phase 1) food security outcomes until at least January. FEWS NET’s assessment is based on expectations of adequate food and income from own-produced crops and labor employment opportunities, supported by a near-average harvest in the north and only slight shortfalls in central districts. In addition, sales of cash crops such as tobacco, legumes, and cereals, alongside land preparation activities for the next season, are providing income for very poor and poor households through labor sales. However, specific areas in Karonga district of northern Malawi are expected to deteriorate from Stressed (IPC Phase 2) to Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes as the lean season progresses due to localized flooding and localized, extended dry spells that reduced household stocks from the harvest. In addition, Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes are expected in lakeshore areas in Salima and Nkhotakota districts due to household crop losses caused by heavy rainfall and flooding during Tropical Cyclone Freddy.

    Recommended Citation: FEWS NET. Malawi Food Security Outlook Update, August 2023: Crisis (IPC Phase 3) persists in south, but food assistance remains inadequate, 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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