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Humanitarian assistance improves food security outcomes in southern Malawi

  • Food Security Outlook Update
  • Malawi
  • December 2023
Humanitarian assistance improves food security outcomes in southern Malawi

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  • Key Messages
  • Current Situation
  • Seasonal Calendar for a Typical Year
  • Updated Assumptions
  • Projected Outlook through May 2024
  • Most likely food security outcomes and areas receiving significant levels of humanitarian assistance
  • Key Messages
    • The commencement of humanitarian assistance has improved outcomes from Crisis (IPC Phase 3) to Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!) in several southern districts of Malawi that were heavily impacted by Tropical Cyclone Freddy and subsequent flooding. The government and development partners have secured around 40 percent of the funding requirements for the 2023/24 Lean Season Response Program (LSRP), with assistance focusing on the districts severely affected by the tropical cyclone. Humanitarian assistance in the districts of Mwanza, Mulanje, Nkhotakota, Mangochi, Zomba City, Phalombe, and Thyolo is provided in the form of cash or in-kind transfers or a combination of both, for a time period ranging from two to six months. This assistance is likely to improve food security outcomes through March 2024. Moreover, households facing Emergency (IPC Phase 4) food security outcomes in areas affected by Tropical Cyclone Freddy that receive assistance – assuming effective targeting will transition to Crisis (IPC Phase 3). 
    • The onset of the 2023/24 rainfall season has been erratic, following typical El Niño weather patterns. This often leads to a delayed start of the season and diminished rainfall amounts. By mid-December 2023, a considerable portion of Malawi hadn't received sufficient rains to start the planting season. In areas where rainfall started and planting commenced, especially in southern Malawi, crops are now suffering from moisture stress, some reaching a point of permanent wilting. This is likely to cause a decrease in planted crops and subsequent low agricultural output. Additionally, it may lead to a reduction in agricultural employment, a critical source of income for most poor and very poor households during the lean season.
    • Economic conditions in Malawi are continuing to worsen, with very high inflation and a shortage of foreign exchange negatively impacting households’ access to food and basic non-food commodities. In early November 2023, the Malawian kwacha was devalued by 44 percent on top of the 25 percent devaluation that was implemented in May 2023. This has led to further increases in the prices of food and basic commodities, thereby eroding the purchasing power of poorer households in both rural and urban areas. Prices of fuel, which affect the price of goods and services, increased by 45 percent following the devaluation; this will widen food access gaps for households that are not benefitting from humanitarian food assistance. Prices of fertilizer also increased by about 20 to 40 percent at a time when households are trying to source fertilizer for the 2023/24 agricultural season, which may compromise production. In addition, the government has cut the number of beneficiaries of the Affordable Inputs Program (AIP) from 2.5 million last season to 1.5 million in the current season.
    • According to FEWS NET market monitoring, food prices remain very high, thereby restricting access for very poor and poor households that mainly rely on market purchases for food in the lean season. By the end of November 2023, the prices of the maize staple were trending at a range of 30 to 80 percent above last year and 170 to 250 percent above the five-year average in FEWS NET-monitored markets. While some month-on-month maize price stability was recorded between October and November, this is a temporary relief driven by the start of in-kind humanitarian assistance in southern Malawi districts as well as release of more maize stock onto the market by farmers selling some of their maize to buy fertilizer and seeds.

    Current Situation

    Seasonal progress: The start of the 2023/24 rainfall season in Malawi is erratic, which is characteristic of an El Niño year. According to the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (DCCMS) bulletin, Malawi continued to receive below-average rainfall up to December 10, 2023, with only six districts in central Malawi and one district in northern Malawi (Nkhotakota, Mchinji, Kasungu, Lilongwe, Dedza, Ntcheu in central Malawi, and Nkhatabay in northern Malawi) having registered average to above-average rainfall up to the end of November. The report indicated that the southern districts of Balaka, Machinga, Zomba, and Mwanza received below-average rainfall. Overall, the rainfall distribution is reported to be erratic, with some planted crops reaching permanent wilting point and having to be replanted. Dry conditions are expected to persist through December 2023 (Figure 1). These dry conditions are reducing agricultural labor opportunities since some agricultural activities, such as planting and weeding, are currently unavailable in most areas. Reduced labor access will negatively impact very poor and poor households that depend on labor for food and basic non-food needs in a year where many households are facing food insecurity and economic challenges (Figure 2). 

    Figure 1

    Map showing rainfall anomalies up to 10 December 2023.
    Map showing rainfall anomalies up to 10 December 2023.

    Source: DCCMS

    Figure 2

    Poor maize germination, Mulanje District
    Poor maize germination, Mulanje District

    Source: DCCMS

    Food prices: Prices for maize, the main staple, and other alternative foods such as rice and beans remain very high compared to the previous year and the five-year average. Between October and November 2023, month-on-month maize prices in FEWS NET–monitored markets remained stable in eight markets and registered increases ranging from 5 to 10 percent in four of the monitored markets. However, prices were trending at a range of 30 to 80 percent above last year and 170 to 250 percent above the five-year average. Maize price stability has been driven by the start of humanitarian assistance, mainly in-kind transfers in southern Malawi districts, as well as the release of more maize stock onto the market by farmers selling some of their maize to raise cash for current farming activities, especially fertilizer and seed purchases. Maize prices ranged from 650 MWK to 800 MWK per kilogram by the end of November 2023. Bean prices ranged from 1,300 to 2,500 MWK per kilogram, which is an average of 25 percent above the previous year’s prices and 80 percent above the five-year average. Rice prices ranged from 1,500 to 2,200 MWK per kilogram, which is 30 percent above the previous year’s prices and 115 percent above the five-year average. Food prices are expected to continue increasing because of the 44 percent currency devaluation effected in November, as well as seasonal increases as Malawi enters the peak lean period from December 2023 to March 2024.

    Macroeconomic conditions: Economic conditions in Malawi have continued to be unstable, characterized by high inflation and increased cost of living. According to the National Statistics Office, the year-on-year inflation rate for October 2023 stood at around 35 percent. Food and non-food inflation rates were at 35 percent and 18 percent, respectively. On November 9, 2023, the exchange rate was adjusted to a selling rate of 1,700 MWK per USD from the previous selling rate of 1,180 MWK per USD, representing a 44 percent devaluation, which also led to an increase in the prices of goods and services, including fuel, which rose by 45 percent following the devaluation. According to a November 2023 Bridgepath Capital Malawi economic report, Malawi continues to have lower foreign currency reserves, reported to be at 243 million USD at the end September 2023, which is less than one month of import cover against a three-month minimum threshold. However, there is more IMF support started to flow to the country’s economy, which raised the expectation for gradual recovery of the economy. 

    Humanitarian food assistance: The government of Malawi and its partners have commenced the 2023/24 Lean Season Response Program (LSRP) in severely affected districts. The LSRP remains underfunded, with only about 40 percent of the required resources for the program so far secured or pledged. According to the Department of Disaster Management Affairs, the program also has a 109,700 MT maize deficit, as the government pledged only 30,000 MT of maize for humanitarian responses. Despite the shortfalls, humanitarian assistance in the form of food or cash has commenced in several southern districts severely affected by Tropical Cyclone Freddy. So far, humanitarian assistance distributions are reported to have started in Mwanza, Mulanje, Blantyre, Mangochi, Neno, Machinga, Phalombe, Thyolo, and Blantyre City in southern Malawi and in Nkhotakota and Ntcheu in central Malawi. The humanitarian food assistance program will improve food security in districts where it covers a minimum of 25 percent of the district population, covering over 50 percent of their monthly caloric needs in (Mangochi, Mulanje, Machinga, Zomba, Thyolo, Blantyre, Phalombe, and Mwanza in southern Malawi), which will support the transition of the area classification from Crisis (IPC Phase 3) to Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!).


    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 October 2023 to May 2024 remain unchanged except the following.

    • Humanitarian assistance: The humanitarian assistance program for areas affected by the tropical cyclone has started. The assistance is expected to improve food security outcomes from Crisis (IPC Phase 3) to Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!) in the presence of food security.
    • Macroeconomy: The devaluation of the kwacha by 44 percent in November 2023 will result in further increases in prices of food, non-food basic commodities, and basic services, which will negatively impact food security as Malawi enters the peak lean period from December to March. However, the Malawi economy may start to gradually improve due to increased donor assistance after the IMF approved the extended credit facility in November 2023.

    Projected Outlook through May 2024

    In several southern districts that were severely affected by Tropical Cyclone Freddy, humanitarian assistance is supporting the improvement of food security situations from Crisis (IPC Phase 3) to Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!). The humanitarian assistance is provided in cash or in-kind transfers targeting over 25 percent of the affected population with over 50 percent of households’ monthly caloric needs. The government and its partners are distributing a 50-kilogram bag of maize per month or a 50,000 MWK cash transfer to targeted households for a period ranging from two to six months. According to the November report from the Department of Disaster Management Affairs, humanitarian assistance programs are underway in the southern districts of Mwanza, Mulanje, Blantyre Rural, Blantyre City, Mangochi, Neno, Machinga, Phalombe, Thyolo, and Zomba, in addition to Nkhotakota and Ntcheu in central Malawi. The humanitarian assistance programs will run through the end of the lean season in March 2024, when households typically start to access own-produced food. However, El Niño conditions are likely to result in below-average harvests in rainfall-deficit areas, especially in parts of central Malawi and southern Malawi. As a result, households in these areas are not likely to benefit from seasonal improvements in food security typical of the harvest period in April/May and are likely to revert back to Crisis (IPC Phase 3) after March 2024. 

    Central and northern Malawi are generally likely to have a more stable food security situation, supported by nearly average production and peak season labor availability. Localized areas along the lakeshore, including Salima in central Malawi and Karonga in northern Malawi, will continue facing Stressed (IPC Phase 2) and Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes, respectively, rapid depletion of stock, below-average income and high food prices. In Nkhotakota, central Malawi, where humanitarian food assistance has commenced, households are likely to face Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!) outcomes. 

    Pockets of areas along the lakeshore, including Salima and Nkhotakota in central Malawi and Karonga in northern Malawi, which had populations in Stressed (IPC Phase 2) and in Crisis (IPC Phase 3) will be likely to face, Stressed (IPC Phase 2) from January to May 2024. Malnutrition levels will likely remain high, especially in southern districts where households faced acute food insecurity from the start of the harvest period. Besides, according to reports from the nutrition cluster, severe acute malnutrition (SAM) admissions increased by 25 percent in October 2023 compared to October 2022, while moderate acute malnutrition (MAM) rates increased by 30 percent.


    Most likely food security outcomes and areas receiving significant levels of humanitarian assistance

    Recommended Citation: FEWS NET. Malawi Food Security Outlook Update, December 2023: Humanitarian assistance improves food security outcomes in severely affected southern Malawi districts, 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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