Food Security Outlook

Humanitarian assistance improves outcomes, with above-average crop production expected in April/May

February 2021 to September 2021

February - May 2021

This is a map of Malawi showing most of the country in Minimal (IPC Phase 1). The four main urban centers (Mzuzu, Lilongwe, Zomba, and Blantyre), some areas in southern Malawi, and one area in central Malawi are mapped in Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!), meaning that humanitarian assistance is preventing worse outcomes.

June - September 2021

This is a map of Malawi showing most of the country in Minimal (IPC Phase 1). Nsanje and Chikwawa districts in southern Malawi are mapped 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

  • Across most rural areas, Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes are expected throughout the projection period, supported by above-average crop production. However, in some southern and central districts impacted by localized production shortfalls in the 2019/20 season, Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!) outcomes are expected through March in the presence of humanitarian assistance. These areas will likely transition to Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes with the beginning of the main harvest in April, with further improvement to Minimal (IPC Phase 1) expected in May. In August/September, Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes are likely to emerge in Nsanje and Chikwawa where the 2020/21 crop has been impacted by dry spells.

  • In urban areas impacted by COVID-19 control measures, humanitarian assistance distributions have started at the end of February 2021. As such, Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes present for most of February are expected to have improved to Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!), expected to persist in the presence of assistance through April. Due to expected economic improvement supported by easing of control measures and cash injections from humanitarian assistance, improvements in income-earning will likely support Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes in May and June. With seasonal increases in economic activity expected during the harvest period, improvement to Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes is likely around July.

  • Malawi is expecting above-average production in the 2020/21 season due to average to above-average rainfall and increased access to inputs through the government’s Affordable Inputs Program. According to Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security first round production estimates, Malawi is expected to produce 4.4 million MT of maize. This is 42 percent above the five-year average and 21 percent above the national requirement. However, these prospects may be revised downward due to dry spells in some southern districts.

  • In January, ADMARC began selling maize at the subsidized price of MWK 160/kg. Given this and above-average market supplies, maize grain prices are expected to remain atypically stable at the national level through the harvest. Maize grain prices have remained stable since November 2020, and in January 2021 were between 12 percent below average to 8 percent above average (but below average in most markets), and 30 to 44 percent below prices at the same time last year.

NATIONAL OVERVIEW

Current Situation

According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MOAFS), Malawi produced 3.7 million MT of the maize staple in the 2019/20 production season. This production was 28 percent above five-year average levels and, according to the 2020/21 national food balance sheet, Malawi recorded a surplus of 534,000 MT against an estimated national requirement of about 3.4 million MT. As a result of this above-average production, market supplies of the maize staple and other food commodities are generally above average across Malawi. At the household level, maize supply levels remain average to above average, with most households accessing food from their own crop production, supplemented by market purchases. However, households in some southern Malawi districts and the central Salima district that registered localized production shortfalls have run out of own-produced food and are relying on market purchases. Despite localized production shortfalls in these areas, market food availability is high due to above-average production in Malawi and neighboring countries.

As of January 2021, the Agricultural Development and Marketing Cooperation (ADMARC) and the National Food Reserve Agency’s (NFRA) Strategic Grain Reserves (SGR) had procured 130,000 MT and 55,000 MT, respectively, of maize grain. On January 19, 2021, ADMARC announced commencement of commercial sales of maize grain at the subsidized price of MWK 160/kg, 20 percent lower than the minimum buying price of MWK 200/kg set by the government in April 2020.

Malawi continues to record above-average volumes of informal maize imports despite above-average local supplies. This is mainly due to the relatively close proximity of Malawian markets for farmers and traders in border areas of neighboring countries of Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania. Maize from neighboring countries is bought and sold at lower prices and is therefore attractive to local traders. From April 2020 to January 2021 (the marketing year to date), Malawi informally imported 60,179 MT of maize and exported 28,913 MT, equating to net imports of 31,266 MT. Total imports through January are 113 percent above the five-year average for the same period.

Due to above-average market supplies and, more recently, subsidized ADMARC sales, maize grain prices have remained atypically stable at the national level from November 2020 to January 2021. In January 2021, maize grain prices ranged from MWK 160 to 220/kg across monitored markets. Maize grain prices in January 2021 were between 12 percent below average to 8 percent above average, but below average in most markets (Figure 1), and 30 to 44 percent below prices at the same time last year. In the 2019/20 marketing year, below-average ADMARC supplies resulted in low sales and lack of significant influence on the market prices amidst increased market demand.

The government targeted about 3.8 million farmers in the first year of the new Affordable Inputs Program (AIP) for the 2020/21 production season. Under the program, farmers can access maize seeds and fertilizer at subsidized prices. Under the old Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP), only around 900,000 farmers were targeted. As of February 20, 2021, the MOAFS announced that 90 percent of the targeted households had accessed fertilizers under the AIP this year. However, only 66 percent had accessed seeds. This is likely due to the delayed start of AIP distributions. Because seeds became available later than the normal planting time, many farmers likely obtained seeds from alternative sources. Despite lower uptake of seeds, area planted with maize is reported to have increased by around 5 percent compared to the previous season, according to MOAFS first round production estimates.

Despite some delays in the start of the rainy season and erratic spatial and temporal distribution of rain in the October to December period, rain from late November to the end of January generally eradicated earlier deficits across the country. As of late February, cumulative rainfall in the 2020/21 season has been average across most of the country, though with localized areas of above-average and below-average rainfall (Figure 2). This generally favorable rainfall and improved access to inputs through the AIP has facilitated a very good crop stand that is expected to lead to an above-average production season overall. As of the end of February, the maize crop was at cob formation and maturing stages, with green harvests expected in March and main harvests expected in April and May — starting in the south — as is typical. However, there is concern for production in the southern Nsanje and Chikwawa districts in the Lower Shire Livelihood Zone due to the delayed start of season, poorly distributed rainfall to date, and mid-season dry spells at the time of crop maturity when water requirements are higher. According to the Malawi Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (DCCMS) as of mid-February, the zone had received about half of the normal amount of cumulative rainfall, and the rains were also poorly distributed. As of late February, rainfall deficits were occurring at the critical time of crop maturity.

In January and February 2021, Malawi has been impacted by a second wave of COVID-19. Although the number of new cases per day has been declining since the end of January, the second wave has been characterized by a significantly higher number of confirmed infections relative to the first wave in mid-2020. As of December 31, 2020, Malawi had recorded 6,583 cases of COVID-19, with 189 associated deaths. Since that time, the number of cumulative recorded cases has increased by nearly five times, reaching 32,229 recorded cases with 1,056 associated deaths by March 3, 2021. As of March 3, the seven-day average of new cases recorded per day was still around 133.

On January 12, 2021, the government responded by enacting a series of control measures including closing land borders, restricting trade activities, closing schools, limiting office working hours for essential services only, restricting business hours for markets and entertainment places, and restricting public gatherings to 50 people. However, due to a reduction in the COVID-19 positivity rate to around 15 percent, the government reopened schools and other learning institutions as of February 22, 2021. While these control measures are expected to have reduced income earning among poor urban households, impacts on the economy and urban livelihoods were likely less severe than during the first wave of COVID-19 control measures, as many institutions, businesses, and organizations have adapted to the changed environment and are functioning at reduced capacity, in contrast to the total closures of mid-2020.

Impacts of COVID-19 control measures on rural livelihoods likely remain minimal, as the number of reported cases remains low and enforcement of control measures remains moderate. For rural households, typical activities such as agricultural production and marketing are taking place normally. However, in the 2019/20 marketing year, COVID-19-related restrictions on international trade impacted income from cash crop sales (including cotton, tobacco, and pulses).

From October 2020 to February 2021, the Malawi Kwacha has lost value against major foreign currencies. This is mainly due to reduced tobacco sales and consequently lower foreign exchange earnings in the 2019/20 production season, on top of typical seasonal trends. According to some media reports, Malawi’s import cover was 2.41 months in January 2021 compared to 3.76 months in January 2020. However, Malawi’s annual rate of inflation decreased in the year 2020, mainly due to lower food prices which account for about half of the value of the Consumer Price Index. According to the National Statistical Office, average inflation for the year 2020 was 8.6 percent, 1.2 percentage points lower than the previous year. However, the business community has been reporting foreign exchange shortages, with the parallel market cost of buying foreign currency over 10 percent higher than the bank rate as of mid to late February.

In most rural areas of the country, households are expected to be accessing normal levels of income from labor, self-employment, trading, and livestock sales. Currently, most available labor is agricultural, related to land preparation, planting, and weeding of late-maturing crops (such as sweet potato and cassava) and picking and processing of tobacco. Given above-average production in 2020 and the favorable progress to date of the 2020/21 production season, availability of labor is expected to be normal, with wages also expected to be at average to above-average levels. Due to the average to above-average precipitation, pasture conditions continue to be average to above average across most of the country, expected to be supporting average livestock body conditions and prices. Additionally, due largely to lower food prices, purchasing power for those selling livestock (as measured by terms of trade between goat prices and maize prices) is nearly three times higher at the national level. However, in the southern districts of Nsanje and Chikwawa that experienced localized below-average production last year, availability of labor is reportedly lower than normal and, due to dry spells this year, pasture recovery has been constrained and livestock conditions are expected to be below average.

In late December 2020, the government and partners began implementation of the humanitarian assistance program for the 2020/21 lean season. Monthly rations comprise in-kind food items including 50 kilograms of maize, 10 kilograms of pulses, and 2 liters of cooking oil, or a cash equivalent of the food items valued at around MWK 23,100 (though the value is adjusted based on local prices). Distributions started in late December 2020 in Mangochi, Machinga, Zomba, and Nsanje districts, in January 2021 in Balaka, Neno, and Blantyre districts, and in February 2021 in the rest of targeted districts. In urban areas, humanitarian assistance distributions for low-income households impacted by COVID-19 control measures in mid-2020 started in late February after a long delay. Households will receive monthly cash transfers through April 2021.

According to preliminary results of a nutrition SMART survey conducted in November/December 2020, the prevalence of Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) as measured by weight-for-height z-score (WHZ) at the national was low, at 1.9 percent (95% CI: 1.2 - 3.0) and within “acceptable” levels (defined by the WHO as less than 5 percent). Although the point estimate is slightly higher than in the January/February 2018 lean season assessment when it was 1.3 percent (95% CI: 0.9 - 1.9), overlapping confidence intervals means that GAM prevalence may be similar to that in 2018. However, GAM prevalence in November/December 2020 was higher than in the June/July 2019 post-harvest assessment when it was 0.5 percent (95% CI: 0.3 - 1.0). This could be due to typical seasonal trends. According to the 2020 assessment, both crude death rate and under-five death rate were low and within the “acceptable” levels (defined by the WHO as less than 1 death/10,000 people/day and less than 2 deaths/10,000 people/day, respectively, in all zones.

In most rural areas of the country, households are likely continuing to access some food from own crop production and income from labor opportunities, petty trade, and livestock sales. This food and income is expected to be sufficient for most households to meet food and essential non-food needs, with Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes expected. However, across the country, some worst-off households are expected to be exhausting stocks and relying on market purchases for food as the lean season progresses, with Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes likely in the absence of sufficient income-earning opportunities. In southern districts that registered localized below-average production, humanitarian assistance is expected to have improved outcomes to Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!). In urban areas, Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes present for most of February are expected to have improved to Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!) in the presence of humanitarian assistance.

Assumptions

The Food Security Outlook for February to September 2021 is based on the following national-level assumptions:

  • According to national and international forecasts, average to above-average cumulative rainfall is expected across most of the country in the October 2020 to March 2021 season. However, localized areas of below-average rainfall (particularly in the south) are expected.
  • Improved access to inputs is expected to increase yields across much of the country. Given this and expectations for rainfall, above-average production is expected across most of the country during the harvest period in April and May.  However, in Nsanje and Chikwawa, below-average production is expected due to localized rainfall deficits. According to MOAFS first round production estimates, Malawi is expected to produce 4.4 million MT of maize, 42 percent above the five-year average and 21 percent above the national requirement. However, these estimates may be revised downward due to dry spells in some southern districts.
  • Net maize grain supply from informal cross-border trade will likely remain above average during the outlook period.
  • Food availability at both the national and household level is expected to remain above average throughout the outlook period. ADMARC and NFRA are expected to have adequate stocks for both commercial sales and humanitarian food assistance until the harvests in April and May 2021.
  • According to government plans, ADMARC and NFRA are expected to purchase maize grain following the upcoming harvest. This is expected to maintain high demand for maize.
  • Staple maize grain prices at Mitundu — the national reference market — are expected to remain atypically stable through the harvest period due to above-average market supply and subsidized ADMARC sales. Following this, prices are expected to follow typical seasonal trends (Figure 3).
  • Livestock herd sizes and body conditions are generally expected to remain normal in most areas. There is likely to be some increase in herd sizes due to restocking as is typical at this time of year. Livestock prices are generally expected to follow seasonal trends, decreasing as the lean season progresses, though remain average to above-average due to fewer households selling livestock in the above-average production year. However, in the Lower Shire Livelihood Zone which is facing rainfall deficits and poor crop performance, livestock prices may decrease during the lean season.
  • The second wave of COVID-19 is expected to persist for one to three months, given the length of outbreaks observed previously in Malawi and elsewhere. The number of new cases will likely continue declining throughout the outlook period (supported by government plans to commence vaccination in March), though uncertainty exists, including due to the threat of new variants.
  • Currently enacted COVID-19 control measures are expected to be eased in the near term (one to three months) due to the decreasing numbers of new COVID-19 cases. This is expected to improve access to income in urban areas. The threat of impacts on rural livelihoods remains low.
  • Due to expected above-average 2020/21 production, normal levels of agricultural and non-agricultural labor will likely be available across most of the country during the projection period. Following the harvest period, non-agricultural labor availability will be at peak levels, while agricultural labor availability will be at seasonally low levels. Non-agricultural labor wages are expected to be average, while agricultural labor wages during the harvest period are expected to be average or above average. However, labor availability is likely to be lower in areas that experience localized below-average production.
  • Cash crop production is expected to be average in most areas. Prices of tobacco — the main cash crop — are expected to be average (though uncertainty exists) while both demand and prices for cotton will likely remain below average due to fewer buying companies on the market.
  • Given expectations for above-average production, most poor rural households are not expected to expand reliance on self-employment activities relative to what is normal, reducing pressure on supply and supporting average prices. At the same time, normal income levels for middle and better off households that procure self-employment services are expected to result in normal demand. As a result, incomes from self-employment will likely be average.
  • Distributions of humanitarian assistance are expected to continue in the targeted rural areas through March and in the cities of Blantyre, Zomba, Lilongwe, and Mzuzu through April.
  • Macroeconomic conditions in Malawi will likely remain stable throughout the outlook period. The Malawi Kwacha will likely begin to appreciate around April/May when sales of tobacco — the main foreign exchange earner — commence, as is typical.

Most Likely Food Security Outcomes

Across most of the country, Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes are expected to persist throughout the projection period, supported by a second consecutive year of above-average harvests in April/May 2021.

In some southern districts and the central Salima district, humanitarian assistance is expected to continue to support Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!) outcomes through March 2021. In April and May, the beginning of the main harvest will likely support transition to Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes as households access food from own crop production, with further improvement to Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes expected as households increasingly access income from crop sales.

In most areas, Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes are expected to persist throughout the projection period. However, in Nsanje and Chikwawa districts in the Lower Shire Livelihood Zone, below-average production is expected in the upcoming harvests. As such, many poor households will likely stock below-average levels of own-produced food, with an increasing number expected to exhaust stocks and become fully reliant on markets for food as the consumption season progresses. Given limited availability of income sources, many will likely be unable to meet all food and essential non-food needs, with Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes likely to re-emerge at the area level between August and September 2021.

In urban areas, humanitarian assistance is expected to support Stressed! (IPC Phase 2!) outcomes through April 2021. Due to expected economic improvement supported by easing of control measures and cash injections from humanitarian assistance, improvements in income-earning will likely support Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes from May to June. With seasonal increases in economic activity expected during the harvest period, improvement to Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes is likely around July.

The prevalence of acute malnutrition among children under five will likely remain low and within “acceptable” levels (GAM less than 5 percent) according to WHO classification, supported by seasonal access to food from the harvests and humanitarian assistance in some areas.

Events that Might Change the Outlook

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

Area

Event

Impact on food security outcomes

National

Early cessation of rainfall

This would likely inhibit maturity of crops and reduce production prospects in affected areas. In these areas, households would likely stock lower amounts of food. Since Malawi is largely an agricultural economy with most economic activities in rural areas being influenced by agricultural production, reduced production would likely reduce available labor opportunities during harvest time and reduce access to income from other sources such as from crop sales and petty trading.

In many areas where production is currently expected to be above average, reduced production would likely lead to average levels of production, with normal levels of food and income as a result, and no impact on outcomes. However, in worst affected areas, below-average production levels would likely lead to below-average food stocks and below-average access to income during the projection period. As a result, in these areas, an increase in the number of households facing Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes in August/September would be likely. In Nsanje and Chikwawa, area-level Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes would likely be expected earlier in the June to September period.

This would also likely lead to drier conditions and reduced water availability for irrigated farming, with the potential for lower production levels.

National

Increase in COVID-19 cases and control measures

This would likely slow or reverse expected improvements in economic and business activity. Access to income would likely decrease again for many low-income urban households. An increase in the number of urban households facing Stressed (IPC Phase 2) or Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes would be likely in the absence of assistance.

In rural areas, further disruptions to international trade would impact tobacco and cotton marketing, leading to lower prices. This would reduce access to income for many rural households and reduce foreign exchange earnings, negatively impacting the macroeconomy.

About Scenario Development

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.

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.
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