Skip to main content

Favorable rainfall performance raises prospects for above-average harvests

  • Food Security Outlook
  • Malawi
  • February - September 2020
Favorable rainfall performance raises prospects for above-average harvests

Download the Report

  • Key Messages
  • Key Messages
    • Between February and March 2020, populations in southern Malawi districts and the northern Karonga district are expected to face Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!) outcomes in the presence of humanitarian assistance. In April and May, these populations will likely face Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes in the absence of assistance but as food access improves from own harvests. However, as cash crop sales will not have significantly started, access to income will remain low during these months. These households will transition to Minimal (IPC Phase 1) in June as significant cash crop income becomes available. Populations in the rest of the country are expected to be in Minimal (IPC Phase 1) from February to September 2020.

    • Malawi is expecting above-average production of most crops including the maize staple in the upcoming season. Harvests are expected to start in April, with green harvests in March. According to first round production estimates from the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development (MoAIWD), Malawi is expected to produce approximately 3.6 million metric tons of maize. Current crop conditions also suggest favorable prospects for above-average production.

    • Prices for the maize staple continued to increase in January 2020 and remain double average levels in most markets. Prices are expected to decrease with the start of green harvests in March, though will likely remain above average through September 2020. Despite anticipated above-average production this season, continued upward pressure on prices resulting from the government-set ADMARC buying price of MWK 310/kg is expected to keep prices from fully normalizing.


    Current Situation

    According to NOAA and the Malawi Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (DCCMS), cumulative rainfall for the 2019/2020 agriculture season (October 2019 to March 2020) has so far been average to above average across most of the country. However, parts of Machinga, Nsanje, and other small portions of southern Malawi received below-average rainfall during the October to December period (Figure 1). Distribution of the rainfall in terms of spatial and temporal coverage has been favorable, leading to a healthy crop stand and good water availability across most of the country (Figures 2 & 3). At the time of a FEWS NET assessment conducted in early to mid-January 2020, most crops in central and southern Malawi were at mid-vegetative stages while crops in northern Malawi were at early vegetative stages. Nsanje district, however, was exhibiting poor crop development due to erratic rainfall. While pests including the Fall Army Worm have threatened many fields across the country, government control measures including pesticide distributions have been largely effective, and crops have recovered. As of end February, most crops were at maturity stage. Overall, Malawi will likely realize above-average maize staple production of about 3.6 million metric tonnes according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development (MoAIWD) press release of 19 February 2020.

    According to MoAIWD district reports, an estimated over 95 percent of farming households targeted by the Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP) successfully accessed inputs for the 2019/2020 production season. This improved input access was due to improved supply by the companies and shops contracted to sell subsidized inputs. In the current season, the government provided coupons for subsidized inputs to 900,000 farming households. This allowed households to purchase fertilizer and maize and legume seeds at heavily subsidized prices. However, tobacco farmers reported a reduction in input support from tobacco companies, with some companies restricting support to contract farmers or even totally withdrawing support owing to dwindling demand from buyers. This has led to some tobacco farmers shifting to grow more maize and legumes and will likely result in reduced tobacco production.

    As of January 2020, maize stocks in the Strategic Grain Reserve (SGR) managed by the National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA) were around 10,000 MT. However, the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA) had indicated requirements for various humanitarian assistance responses to be far in excess of what the SGR was holding. Meanwhile, the Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC), the country’s main grain seller, is estimated to have around 5,000 MT of maize stocks – well below typical levels. ADMARC continues to sell maize at a government-fixed price of MWK 150 per kilogram. However, due to low stocks, ADMARC has not meaningfully influenced market prices in the 2019/2020 season.

    Prices of maize – the main staple – remain significantly elevated. According to a FEWS NET assessment in early to mid-January, retail maize prices ranged from MWK 245 to 300 per kilogram in northern region markets, from MWK 240 to 300 per kilogram in central region markets, and from MWK 300 to 400 per kilogram in southern region markets. According to Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) data collected by the MoAIWD, prices of maize grain increased by 7-18 percent in most markets between December 2019 and January 2020 to reach MWK 255-377 per kilogram. As of January, prices of maize grain were trending at levels 56 to 119 percent above levels observed last year, and between 69 and 118 percent above five-year average levels.

    Meanwhile, income earned through agricultural labor opportunities – which typically provide poor households with about 30 percent of annual income – is currently below average. Despite seasonally high demand for agricultural labor in December and January, an increase in the number of households competing for the same labor opportunities has been exerting downward pressure on wages and restricting access to this income source. In February, demand for agricultural labor has started to seasonally decline as farmers begin to await crop maturity and harvests.

    In southern areas that have been facing the highest levels of acute food insecurity, livestock holdings are currently at seasonally low levels due to households selling livestock to purchase food. Poorer households typically own an average of three to five goats throughout the year. At the time of FEWS NET’s January assessment, most households owned one to two goats, while others had atypically sold all their goats to buy food. Due to the increase in supply, prices of goats were at seasonal low levels, ranging from MWK 10,000 to MWK 15,000. These prices are approximately 50 percent lower than typical prices after the harvest. With maize prices ranging from MWK 15,000 to 20,000 per 50 kilogram bag, the goat-to-maize terms of trade are significantly eroded to around a third or less of what is typical for this time of year.

    In late December, the government of Malawi commenced the implementation of a humanitarian food assistance program, planned to begin with seven priority districts in southern Malawi (Machinga, Mangochi, Zomba, Balaka, Nsanje, Neno, and, in January, Chikwawa). However, though planned to commence in late December, the provision of aid in Balaka only began in late January due to administrative issues. Households in Balaka, Karonga, Blantyre, Mwanza, and Phalombe districts also began receiving assistance in February. Following expansion of implementation plans, humanitarian food assistance was being provided in 22 districts throughout the country as of February.  These areas include some districts with populations in Crisis (IPC Phase 3) as well as some with populations in Stressed (IPC Phase 2) or Minimal (IPC Phase 1) according to FEWS NET analysis. Households are mostly being targeted with cash transfers equivalent in value to 50 kilograms of maize, 10 kilograms of pulses, and 2 liters of cooking oil each month. This amounts to approximately MWK 23,000 per household per month. Overall, about 13 percent of poor households across the country are being targeted with humanitarian food assistance through March 2020.

    Overall, area-level acute food insecurity outcomes are Minimal (IPC Phase 1) in most parts of northern and central Malawi and Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!) in the presence of humanitarian assistance in many parts of southern Malawi and in the northern Karonga district. In the current environment of high food prices and below-average incomes, Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes persist among poor households currently not receiving humanitarian assistance due to mistargeting. These households are atypically expanding self-employment activities including firewood and charcoal sales and coping by selling some livestock – especially goats and chickens. Some households in southern Malawi even reported selling some assets such as bicycles in order to access income for food purchases. Households reported reducing the quantity and frequency of meals, with many consuming just one meal per day compared to the typical three.

    National Level Assumptions

    The Food Security Outlook for February to September 2020 is based on the following national-level assumptions:

    • According to NOAA and DCCMS forecasts, average to above-average rainfall is expected through the end of the rainy season in March 2020. As a result, cumulative rainfall for the season is expected to be average to above-average. 
    • Given the current rainfall forecast, production of most key food and cash crops is expected to be above average. Green harvests are expected beginning in the south in late February to March, with main harvests anticipated in March/April. In central and northern regions, main harvests are anticipated in April/May and May/June, respectively. However, tobacco production will likely be below average due to a reduction in farmers growing tobacco as a result of poor marketing and reduced input support by government and tobacco companies.
    • Though Fall Armyworm and African Armyworm remain a threat, minimal impact on the maize crop is anticipated due to effective control measures and reduced spread resulting from recent heavy rainfall.
    • There will likely be no significant formal maize imports by the government given anticipated above-average production for the 2019/20 production year. With an above-average production season expected for Malawi, informal cross-border food imports especially for the maize staple are expected to decrease from the current high levels. It is likely that informal cross-border maize imports will reduce to a range of 1,000 to 2,500 metric tons per month as compared to inflows as high as 4,000 to 5,000 metric tons per month in previous years.
    • Overall, the country is expected to close the current marketing year in March and enter the 2020/2021 marketing year with significantly below-average stocks. The National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA) is expected to have no significant stocks in the country’s strategic grain reserve, while ADMARC is similarly expected to have no significant stocks in its warehouses. Private traders are expected to have some stocks, though these will be below average due to increased demand in the current marketing year. Given expectations for production and current ADMARC purchasing targets, stocks are expected to remain below average through March before increasing to average to above-average levels in the April to September 2020 period.
    • Based on FEWS NET’s integrated price projections, maize grain prices will likely remain significantly above average between January and the end of the consumption year in March. Prices are expected to range from MWK 340 to 400 per kilogram, with the highest prices occurring in deficit-producing southern areas and the lowest prices in northern and central areas. These anticipated prices are between 100 to 200 percent higher than last year’s prices and the five-year average. During this time, ADMARC is expected to play a minimal role in price stabilization due to below-average stocks. Maize prices are expected to begin decreasing with the green harvests in late February to March and will follow seasonal trends throughout the projection period. Prices of pulses (including beans and pigeon peas) and fish will likely also remain high in the January to March period.
    • Given declining demand from tobacco companies, tobacco farm-gate and auction prices are expected to remain below average despite reduced supply.
    • Given current crop development and expectations for favorable rainfall, income from cash crop sales – including tea, sugar, tobacco, and pulses – will likely be average to above average overall. However, due to expectations for below-average tobacco production and low prices, both household income from tobacco sales and total national foreign exchange earnings are expected to be below average in the 2019/2020 marketing year. In recent years, tobacco production volumes and overall earnings have been declining annually. Tobacco remains Malawi’s most important foreign exchange earner.
    • Given expectations for average to above-average income from cash crop sales and favorable production prospects for other food crops, overall income from crop sales is expected to be average to above average. Above-average maize prices are further expected to support income from food crop sales. Common cash crops include tobacco and cotton while some households sell food crops such as maize, rice, groundnuts, pulses, and tubers for income.
    • From February to May, demand for agricultural labor supporting harvest activities is expected to be average throughout the country. During this time, typical wages will support usual seasonal income levels for poor households in these areas. From June to September, demand for agricultural labor in central and northern areas is expected to be slightly below average during the tobacco harvesting and marketing season. This will likely reduce income levels for many poor households who rely on tobacco harvesting and marketing activities.
    • Favorable production is expected to support normal income levels among middle-income and better-off households who offer labor opportunities to poor households. As such, poor households are anticipated to access average levels of income from non-agricultural labor opportunities including construction. However, income access in tobacco-producing areas will likely be below average, as tobacco is the main source of income for most middle-income and better-off households who hire labor. Households will also likely access average levels of income from self-employment activities such as firewood and charcoal sales.
    • During the peak of the lean period through March, livestock prices are expected to remain at seasonally low, average levels due to increased supply as poor households engage in desperate livestock sales. Prices will start to increase again in April when households access own food and income from harvests. At this time, livestock supply will reduce as households are no longer desperate for income to buy food.
    • Households in districts identified by MVAC to have been facing the most severe levels of food insecurity will continue receiving humanitarian food assistance through March 2020. Recipient households will benefit from humanitarian food assistance in the form of in-kind or cash transfers. In kind rations will include 50kg of maize, 10kg of legumes, and 2L of vegetable oil per month. Cash transfer benefits will be equivalent to the in-kind rations.

    Most Likely Food Security Outcomes

    Most parts of northern and central Malawi are expected to continue facing Minimal (IPC Phase 1) acute food insecurity outcomes throughout the projection period. In much of southern Malawi and in the northern Karonga district, the provision of humanitarian food assistance is expected to sustain Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!) outcomes through the end of March. During this time, most households receiving humanitarian food assistance are expected to continue accessing some income from the humanitarian cash transfers. These households are expected to be able to meet all food needs, but not all essential non-food needs through March 2020. Meanwhile, some severely food insecure households not receiving humanitarian assistance during this time are expected to continue facing Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes through March 2020. While these households are expected to continue earning some income from agricultural labor opportunities, self-employment activities including selling firewood and charcoal, and sales of small livestock including goats and chickens, this income is expected to be insufficient to satisfy food and non-food needs.

    In March, ongoing green harvests are expected to improve food access for most poor households. As such, areas previously receiving humanitarian assistance are expected to transition to Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes in April as assistance ceases but food from own-production increases. During this time, households not previously receiving humanitarian assistance are also expected to improve to Stressed (IPC Phase 2) as green harvests improve food access. For both of these groups, however, access to income will likely be insufficient to meet all food and essential non-food needs until the peak crop marketing season starts around May/June. With the main harvests, poor households are expected to begin accessing adequate levels of both food and income from own-production and cash crop sales, respectively, allowing them to meet food and essential non-food needs. As a result of favorable production, food stocks are anticipated to last through at least September, anticipated to support Minimal (IPC Phase 1) food security outcomes throughout this time. However, below-average production is anticipated in the two Lower Shire districts of Nsanje and Chikwawa. While this is not anticipated to impact outcomes during the projection period, food security outcomes during the lean period beginning around October are likely to be worse than in the rest of the country. This is expected to be the third consecutive year of poor harvests in these areas. As a result of reduced access to food from own-production and decreased resilience, some very poor and poor households are likely to face Stressed (IPC Phase 2) and Crisis (IPC Phase 3) food security outcomes early in the 2020/2021 lean period.

    Given improved food access due to the provision of humanitarian food assistance and anticipated average to above-average food and cash crop harvests, the prevalence of Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) among children under five is expected to remain stable and within acceptable levels (GAM less than five percent) according to WHO classifications throughout the outlook period.

    Events that Might Change the Outlook

    Possible events over the next eight months that could change the most-likely scenario:



    Impact on food security outcomes


    Early cessation of rains in February to March period

    This would likely impede proper development of crops and may alter current expectations of above-average production for both food and cash crops, reducing access to food and income among poor households. This would likely lead to another year of atypically early food and income gaps as the consumption season progresses.


    Further increases in prices for the maize staple

    This would likely further reduce food access among poor households, increasing the number of people facing food consumption gaps and Crisis (IPC Phase 3) food insecurity outcomes both prior to the harvest and as the consumption season progresses.


    For more information on the outlook for specific areas of concern, please click the download button at the top of the page for the full report.

    Figures This is a map of Malawi showing that much of the northern region received cumulative rainfall above 125 percent of normal and

    Figure 1

    Figure 1

    Source: DCCMS

    This is a photo of a healthy maize crop.

    Figure 2

    Figure 2

    Source: FEWS NET

    This is a photo of a healthy tobacco crop.

    Figure 3

    Figure 3

    Source: FEWS NET

    To project food security outcomes, FEWS NET develops a set of assumptions about likely events, their effects, and the probable responses of various actors. FEWS NET analyzes these assumptions in the context of current conditions and local livelihoods to arrive at a most likely scenario for the coming eight months. Learn more here.

    Get the latest food security updates in your inbox Sign up for emails

    The information provided on this Website is not official U.S. Government information and does not represent the views or positions of the U.S. Agency for International Development or the U.S. Government.

    Jump back to top