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High food prices and a delayed harvest as assistance programs end

  • Food Security Outlook Update
  • Malawi
  • March 2012
High food prices and a delayed harvest as assistance programs end

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  • Key Messages
  • Updated food security outlook through June 2012
  • Key Messages
    • An MVAC assessment report released in March estimated that that 272,502 people would be food insecure during the December-April period, an increase of more than 70,000 people since 2011.  However, due to delays in releasing the results, the ongoing humanitarian response program does not fully cover the estimated population in need. 

    • While humanitarian response in southern Malawi comes to an end in March, there are concerns that late planting in some southern districts may delay the next harvest, meaning that assistance needs will persist into April.  

    • Field observations in southern Malawi suggest that crop production will be poor compared to the past four years due to erratic rains.  In some areas, there are concerns that households may not realize any crop harvest at all. Second round crop estimates are expected in April.

    Updated food security outlook through June 2012

    According to seasonal monitoring reports, the 2011/12 rainfall season was generally characterized by a poor start of season and erratic rainfall performance from October to December 2011. The start of the rainy season was two dekads early in southern Malawi, however, the rains were generally erratic throughout the season. The Ministry of Agriculture Irrigation and Water Development (MoAIWD) is in the process of collecting 2011/12 crop production data as part of the second stage of a four-stage annual crop estimation process. Given the generally poor performance of rainfall in terms of both totals and prolonged dry spells in November, December and February, most crops in the south (both food and cash crops) are not ready for harvest and are expected to perform poorly. 

    Maize price trends during the 2011-2012 consumption year increased normally through December with average prices of MK 25.57/kg, MK 28.11/kg and MK 36.42/kg for April to July, July to September, and October to December 2011, respectively. However, maize prices increased abnormally in January reaching an average price of MK 56.52/kg. In part, this is due to the fuel and foreign currency scarcity faced by Malawi this year. Fuel companies are unable to import fuel due to lack of availability of foreign currency in the banks and have shifted to illegal imports, which along with fuel scarcity, has put upward pressure on fuel prices. High fuel prices have increased the cost of transportation and subsequently, the cost of maize in the south.

    National average maize prices dropped from MK 56.61 in January to MK 52.75/kg in February 2012, representing a 6.8 percent decrease. This decrease was influenced by a larger decline in southern Malawi, the largest deficit area, where average prices fell by 13.5 percent. The large declines followed the release of huge quantities of maize at low prices onto local markets in southern Malawi by some big traders after an export ban was announced by government. The largest drops were reported in the southern region markets of Limbe – MK 90.18/kg to MK 72.63/kg, Lunzu – MK 69.75 to MK 50.23, and Ngabu – MK 82.22 to MK 66.58/kg. Central Malawi was also affected, with average prices falling by 6.85 percent as traders in Central markets which supply Southern Malawi had to compete with lower wholesale prices in destination markets. Prices in Northern Malawi, the country’s main surplus area, followed normal seasonal trends with prices rising by 10 percent as the lean season peaked. National average rice prices in February increased by 10.6 percent, from MK 232.40/kg to MK 256.96/kg, with all regions affected by higher prices. Beans prices rose, on average by 2.9 percent, from MK 274.85/kg to MK 282.78/kg. Average cassava prices increased by 3.7 percent, from MK 60.79 to MK 63.06/kg

    Based on the MVAC report of June 2011, 201,000 people from Ntcheu, Balaka, Mwanza, Neno, Blantyre, Zomba, Chikhwawa, Nsanje and Phalombe districts were expected  to be unable to meet basic food needs from December 2011 to February 2011 due to a poor harvest in 2011 and would needed humanitarian food assistance.  So far, the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA), working in partnership with the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) and Non-Governmental Organizations has responded by implementing a targeted food distribution program targeting this entire food insecure population.  Food distributions started in January 2012, one month later than planned due to logistical issues.  As a result, beneficiaries received an unplanned one month ration in March, though based on delayed harvests, this food assistance was necessary. 

    Due to the increase in retail food prices during January 2012 and the erratic rainy season, the Malawi Vulnerability and Assessment Committee (MVAC) revised its estimates of the country’s food insecure population, concluding that an additional 70,650 people from poor and middle households are not able to access food through markets from December 2011 to April 2012. However, the decision to respond to the food needs of these 70,650 was delayed until mid-March meaning that it is unlikely that the DoDMA will be able to provide food assistance to these people in April.

    In March, the 201,000 people in the south will meet basic food needs through a reliance of government food assistance. An additional 70,650 are meeting food needs through negative coping strategies like the sale of breeding stock and the consumption of immature green maize. Both groups of households, residing in many areas of southern Malawi and part of Ntcheu district in the central region, are classified as Stressed (IPC Phase 2), though the size of this population is not large enough to classify the entire district as Phase 2.

    The Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services’ (DoCCMS) dekadal reports indicate that all districts had about 20 days (two dekads) of poor rainfall in November and 20 days of very poor rainfall in December when most crops permanently wilted, forcing most farmers to replant in January 2012.  This means that field crops will not reach full maturity until April.  Based on observations from NGO partners and reports from DoCCMS and the Ministry of Agriculture, a poor harvest is expected in almost all districts of the southern part of the country. An MVAC update report from March shows that parts of Balaka, Neno, Mwanza, Zomba and Phalombe districts may realize little or no harvests.  Cotton production has been scaled up, which will positively affect household income, though the size of these income gains is unclear.  Cotton sales are likely to start in June.  An MVAC pre-harvest assessment will be conducted to determine the food security impacts of these prolonged dry spells in the southern Malawi districts.  The teams will also assess the food security impacts of isolated cases of floods in Karonga, Salima, Chikhwawa and Nsanje districts. The central and southern parts of the country are expected to experience near normal harvest in May and June.

    Due to the delayed harvests and high maize prices, the 271,000 people identified as food insecure for the January-March period are likely to remain food insecure in April, meeting basic food needs only by consuming green harvests, a coping strategy which limits household stocks later in the year.  Therefore, these households will remain classified as Stressed (IPC Phase 2) during April.

    Looking beyond April, in May and June, most rural households across the country will begin harvesting the main season maize crop. Exceptions include some districts of Ntcheu, Balaka, Zomba, Neno, Mwanza and Phalombe where very poor harvests are expected. In addition, with the start of tobacco sales expected in April or May, foreign currency availability may improve slightly in the short term.  This could ease pressure on the availability of essential goods and services like fuel and, coupled with the imminent harvest, could help to further reduce food prices in southern Malawi.

    Poor households that will realize little or no harvests will try to meet food needs through seeking out casual labor opportunities in areas where there will be harvests and extensive sale of firewood and other unsustainable forest resources harvesting activities.  Cash crop harvests are also expected to be poor, with the exception of cotton. As a result, these poor households may face Stressed food security conditions (IPC Phase 2) throughout the outlook period while the rest of the country will face Minimal Food Security Conditions (IPC Phase 1).  

    Figures Seasonal Calendar and Critical Events Timeline

    Figure 1

    Seasonal Calendar and Critical Events Timeline

    Source: FEWS NET

    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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