Food Security Outlook Update

Drought conditions at the start of agriculture season pose a risk to food security across Malawi

December 2021

December 2021 - January 2022

Projected Food security outcomes for Malawi from October 2021 to January 2022. Most of the country in Minimal (IPC Phase 1), with southern Malawi in Crisis (IPC Phase 3).

February - May 2022

Projected food security outcomes, February to May 2022. Most of the country in Minimal (IPC Phase 1), with southern Malawi in Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!).

IPC v3.0 Acute Food Insecurity Phase

1: Minimal
2: Stressed
3: Crisis
4: Emergency
5: Famine
National Parks/Reserves
Would likely be at least one phase worse without current or programmed humanitarian assistance
FEWS NET classification is IPC-compatible. IPC-compatible analysis follows key IPC protocols but does not necessarily reflect the consensus of national food security partners.

IPC v3.0 Acute Food Insecurity Phase

1: Minimal
2: Stressed
3: Crisis
4: Emergency
5: Famine
National Parks/Reserves
Would likely be at least one phase worse without current or programmed humanitarian assistance
FEWS NET classification is IPC-compatible. IPC-compatible analysis follows key IPC protocols but does not necessarily reflect the consensus of national food security partners.

IPC v3.0 Acute Food Insecurity Phase

1: Minimal
2: Stressed
3+: Crisis or higher
Would likely be at least one phase worse without
current or programmed humanitarian assistance
FEWS NET classification is IPC-compatible. IPC-compatible analysis follows key IPC protocols but does not necessarily reflect the consensus of national food security partners.
FEWS NET Remote Monitoring countries use a colored outline to represent the highest IPC classification in areas of concern.

IPC v3.0 Acute Food Insecurity Phase

Presence countries:
1: Minimal
2: Stressed
3: Crisis
4: Emergency
5: Famine
National Parks/Reserves
Remote monitoring
countries:
1: Minimal
2: Stressed
3+: Crisis or higher
Would likely be at least one phase worse without
current or programmed humanitarian assistance
FEWS NET Remote Monitoring countries use a colored outline to represent the highest IPC classification in areas of concern.

Key Messages

  • In Malawi, ongoing drought conditions and record low rainfall totals exist across most areas, particularly the Central and Northern regions. This differs significantly from the average to above-average rainfall assumption in the October 2021 Food Security Outlook and previous global, regional, and national weather forecasts for the 2021/22 rainfall season. Preliminary total rainfall is the lowest on record in several areas and substantially below similar periods in 2015, the most recent widespread below-average rainfall season. The revised forecast indicates poor rainfall is expected to continue, likely resulting in a below-average 2022 harvest.

  • As a result of the loss of some agricultural labor opportunities and slight increases in food prices, some very poor households across the country will be Stressed (IPC Phase 2) or in Crisis (IPC Phase 3). At the area-level, though, food security outcomes will not shift significantly during the projection period and will remain Minimal (IPC Phase 1) across most of the country. The poor season signals that food security is likely to deteriorate in mid and late-2022 – outside of the current projection period – the time at which the impacts of the current below-average season will more notably affect poor households' food and income sources.

  • In Lower Shire livelihood zone districts of Nsanje and Chikwawa, Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes currently exist, driven by poor production in the preceding season and the fact that very poor households lack sufficient income to purchase their basic food needs. However, humanitarian food assistance is planned for January to March 2022 and is likely to support improvement to Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!). 

  • In the November to December 2021 period, market monitoring reports show high volumes of maize in markets, prompting slight price reductions and stability. In November 2021, retail maize prices ranged between 106-170 MWK per kilogram, between 18 percent and 31 percent below their corresponding 2020 levels, and significantly below the five-year average by between 14 and 33 percent. While below-average trends are expected to continue, upward pressure on prices was observed starting in late December due to atypical informal exports and concerns of a below-average 2022 harvest.

CURRENT SITUATION

In Malawi, ongoing drought conditions and record low rainfall totals exist across most areas, particularly the Central and Northern regions. However, two preceding years of above-average production is likely mitigating against an immediate deterioration in food security outcomes. However, in the Lower Shire Livelihood Zone districts of Nsanje and Chikwawa, where below-average production was realized last season, very poor households have started to face food gaps and are in Crisis (IPC Phase 3). 

Widespread rainfall deficits at start of season

There are record rainfall deficits across nearly all of Malawi. Both the standard precipitation index (SPI) (Figure 1) and rainfall totals reflect ongoing drought conditions in critical agricultural areas. In central and northern regions, preliminary total rainfall is the lowest on record, at around 122 mm and 105 mm on average, respectively. 

In the northern part, total rainfall to date is approximately 60 percent below the long-term mean (LTM) (Figure 2) and 40 percent below the 2015-16 totals by the end of December, when below-average rainfall had a significant impact on food security. Similarly, in the central region, total rainfall is approximately 55 percent below the LTM and 46 percent below 2015-16 totals.

Based on FEWS NET's analysis of the SPI by livelihood zone, most livelihood zones in Malawi are currently experiencing moderate to severe dryness, with six livelihood zones recording extreme dryness, as per SPI thresholds for proxy drought conditions ranging from -2.0 to -2.5 (North: Chitipa maize and Millet, Western Rumphi Mzimba, Mzimba Self Sufficient; Centre: Kasungu Lilongwe Plain, Southern Lake Shore; South: Phirilongwe Hills, Southern Lake Shore livelihood zones). Currently, areas in southern Malawi, while facing late start and below-average rainfall, have received relatively better rainfall performance from the beginning of the season.

In most livelihood zones, field reports indicate that current agricultural labor has reduced slightly but is mostly in line with seasonal trends. As a result, ongoing agricultural labor opportunities and low staple food prices are mitigating against a deterioration in food security outcomes for very poor and poor households in drought-affected areas. 

Favorable price trends persist despite emerging risk of market volatility

Across most markets monitored by FEWS NET, favorable market dynamics and below-average price trends persisted during November and early December. FEWS NET price monitoring for November indicated that retail maize prices ranged between 106-170 MWK per kilogram. This is 18 to 31 percent below 2020 prices in monitored markets, 14 to 33 percent below the five-year average, and 17 to 49 percent lower than the 205 MWK per kilogram set by the ADMARC, the government parastatal established sell maize at subsidized prices. 

However, signals of upward pressure on prices at the end of December may indicate traders' concerns with current rainfall performance and increased informal exports. In the Karonga market, maize prices increased by 5 percent from October to November, potentially linked to the reported decreasing food supplies in the north due to informal exports (see below). Further, data for the fourth week of December indicated a notable increase in the price of maize. The rise in prices is, in part, attributed to the delayed start of rainfall across parts of southern Africa, including ongoing drought conditions in Malawi, and the increased likelihood of a below-average harvest.

Informal cross-border exports of maize have increased significantly from 8,597 MT in October to 10,487 MT in November, a 22 percent month-to-month increase and 16 times the five-year average. The increase in informal exports to East Africa may be linked to food shortages, reducing food availability, and increasing food prices in the region, particularly in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, where consecutive drought conditions and poor harvests persist. In November, data revealed that most informal exports originated from central region districts of Dowa, Kasungu, and some parts of Lilongwe, as anecdotal reports indicate that Chitipa has exhausted supplies earlier than anticipated.

Fourth COVID-19 wave concerning but unlikely to mirror 2020 impacts

As of December, Malawi is currently experiencing increases in COVID-19 daily infections. While the government's relaxation of previous restrictions led to improvement in the business and employment environment, the increasing daily case rate is a cause of concern. The government's introduction of COVID-19 containment measures in early 2020 had negative micro-economic implications on the employment and business environment in urban areas, negatively affecting food security among poorer urban households. However, the negative economic impacts from current policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 are likely to be mild compared to the onset in 2020, as most businesses and workplaces have adapted to continue operating within the restricted environment.

Current food security outcomes

Overall, despite an exceptionally poor start to the rainfall season, food security conditions in most of Malawi remain favorable. This is driven by two consecutive preceding above-average harvests, continued labor opportunities, and below-average food prices. As a result, the impacts of the drought in the immediate term remain minimal for most households, although some very poor households may experience a reduction in income and reduced food access. However, Crisis outcomes (IPC Phase 3) are expected in the Lower Shire Livelihood Zone districts of Nsanje and Chikwawa, where production in the preceding season was below average and households are atypically reliant on markets but unable to afford all food needs.

UPDATED ASSUMPTIONS

Most assumptions used to develop the most likely scenario for October 2021 to May 2022 Food Security Outlook remain valid. Except the following:

  • Based on revised weather forecast models and the very poor start of the 2020/21 rainfall, the 2020/21 rainfall season is expected to be below average. Near-term rainfall forecast up to early January indicates that 14 livelihood zones are likely to experience their driest season on record (through mid-January), particularly in central and northern regions. And December to February precipitation performance probability calls for a 75 to 90 percent probability of below-average rainfall over northern Malawi (Figure 3). 
  • Based on the significant rainfall deficits to date and forecast for below-average rainfall for the remainder of the season, below-average 2022 crop production is expected.
  • Based on ongoing rainfall performance, revised forecast, and expected below-average harvest, FEWS NET expects that agricultural labor opportunities will be atypically low at the peak of the agricultural labor season, in January, and will remain low through the projection period. The reduction in agricultural labor opportunities will likely have the highest impact on very poor and poor households, which depend heavily on labor for in-kind or income to purchase food in markets from January to March.
  • Based on revised delayed rainfall, atypically high informal export flows and expected below-average production, the price of maize is anticipated to increase by between 10 and 25 percent throughout the remainder of the consumption period between January and March 2022, following seasonal trends; however, prices are still expected to remain 5 to 10 percent below the five-year average due to higher-than-normal national food reserves.
  • The COVID-19 daily positivity rate will likely continue rising in Malawi in the interim as the country enters its fourth wave of the pandemic. However, the impact of COVID-19 related restrictions on employment and business environment will likely be lower than in 2020 as workplaces and businesses have adapted to operating effectively despite restrictions.
  • Maize prices are lower than projected in Lower Shire livelihood Zone and are expected to trend lower than the ADMARC prices of 205 MWK per kilogram throughout the consumption period. According to a district agriculture report, current maize prices range from 160 to 170 MWK per kilogram.
  • Available information on planned humanitarian food assistance for Nsanje and Chikwawa suggests that approximately 20 percent of the population will be reached with 100 percent of their kilocalorie needs from late-December 2021 through March 2022. Based on available humanitarian assistance distribution plans, FEWS NET anticipates populations in greatest need will be largely reached with planned assistance.

PROJECTED OUTLOOK THROUGH MAY 2022

With the revised forecast for a below-average main rainy season, below-average crop production and lower-than-normal agricultural labor opportunities are now expected. Although food prices are expected to remain below-average, they will be less significantly below average than previously expected. As a result of the loss of some agricultural labor opportunities and some increases in food prices, some very poor households will be in Stressed (IPC Phase 2) or Crisis (IPC Phase 3). At the area-level, food security outcomes will not shift significantly during the projection period and will remain Minimal (IPC Phase 1), given favorable production in preceding seasons, the expectation that agricultural labor income will not drop sharply, and as food prices remain favorable; however, should there be a shift in any of the most likely assumptions (such as a completely failed season or an atypical sharp rise in food prices) outcomes could be worse than currently projected. In the most likely scenario, though, the poor season signals that food security is likely to deteriorate in mid and late-2022 – outside of the current projection period – the time at which the impacts of the current below-average season will more notably affect poor households' food and income sources.

Of high concern for future food security impacts are Central Karong, Misuku Hill, Western Rumphi & Mzimba, Mzimba Self Sufficient livelihood zones, which have seen the worst rainfall performance to date. Furthermore, very poor households, which constitute approximately 20 – 40 percent of households in these livelihood zones, derive between 20 and 30 percent of their annual income from agricultural labor and rely on markets to purchase approximately 20 percent of their food needs. For very poor households, a slow deterioration in conditions throughout the projection is expected, with a minor relief during an abbreviated harvest period. In January 2022, below average demand for agricultural labor is expected to peak, with prices remaining below five-year average. At this time very poor households are likely to maintain food access; however, a small portion of very poor households unable to access agricultural labor will be Stressed (IPC Phase 2). By mid-February, demand for agricultural labor will continue to decrease while food prices increase, resulting in a slightly higher proportion of households experiencing Stressed (IPC Phase 2) conditions, and a smaller proportion of households facing Crisis conditions (IPC Phase 3). Between April and May, the end of the projection period, a below average harvest is expected to mitigate against further deterioration in outcomes but is unlikely to provide sufficient agricultural labor opportunities or food stocks required to reverse the downward trend for very poor households. As a result, some very poor households are likely to experience Stressed (IPC Phase 2) or Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes during the projection period, although less than 20 percent of total population of any given livelihood zone.

In Lower Shire livelihood zone districts of Nsanje and Chikwawa, Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes are likely to be averted by humanitarian assistance, resulting in Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!) between February and May. In both districts, very poor households who have exhausted their food stocks will not have enough income for food and essential non-food needs through March 2022. While staple food prices are below average, the households will be unable to purchase sufficient food to make up for crop losses because income-earning activities will remain below average. The start of the humanitarian assistance program in January, is expected to reach 20 percent of the population of these areas with a full ration. However, it is expected the very poor households will still face difficulty meeting their noon-food needs.

 

About this Update

This monthly report covers current conditions as well as changes to the projected outlook for food insecurity in this country. It updates FEWS NET’s quarterly Food Security Outlook. Learn more about our work here.

About FEWS NET

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network is a leading provider of early warning and analysis on food insecurity. Created by USAID in 1985 to help decision-makers plan for humanitarian crises, FEWS NET provides evidence-based analysis on approximately 30 countries. Implementing team members include NASA, NOAA, USDA, USGS, and CHC-UCSB, along with Chemonics International Inc. and Kimetrica.
Learn more About Us.

Link to United States Agency for International Development (USAID)Link to the United States Geological Survey's (USGS) FEWS NET Data PortalLink to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Link to National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Earth ObservatoryLink to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Weather Service, Climage Prediction CenterLink to the Climate Hazards Center - UC Santa BarbaraLink to KimetricaLink to Chemonics