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High prices, declining incomes, and poor winter production cause Crisis food insecurity

  • Food Security Outlook
  • Malawi
  • July - December 2015
High prices, declining incomes, and poor winter production cause Crisis food insecurity

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  • Key Messages
  • Key Messages
    • Following a poor 2014/15 production season, FEWS NET estimates that this year’s national maize deficit is approximately 500,000 MT. Currently, households are dealing with high staple food prices at the same time that their incomes are sharply dropping. Poor households in southern and central areas affected by severe flooding earlier this year and extended dryness at the end of the season will be Stressed (IPC Phase 2) between July and September. Poor households in northern areas affected by drought will face similar acute food insecurity outcomes.

    • Between July and September, poor households will likely earn less from food and cash crop sales due to reduced 2014/15 production levels. Additionally, prospects for the irrigated/winter production are poor due to low moisture availability, increasing pressure on incomes. 

    • As competition for labor rises between October and December, some households anticipate migrating to Mozambique and Zambia to find work. However, prevailing El Niño conditions in the southern region might result in a late start of season, which could limit labor opportunities and further reduce household income

    • Between October and December, households in the southern and central areas will require humanitarian assistance as they continue to experience livelihood protection deficits and food consumption gaps. They will be in Crisis (IPC Phase 3). Households in the north and some parts of the central region will begin to experience livelihood protection deficits and will be Stressed (IPC Phase 2).


    Current Situation

    Malawi,  typically a self-sufficient maize producer, had poor crop performance was poor earlier this year due to a late and erratic start to the season, followed by damage from severe flooding in the southern half of the country, and periods of extended dryness across most of the country for the latter half of the season. As a result, maize supplies for the 2014/15 agricultural year are well below the five-year average. Prices increased by more than 10 percent during the harvest and post-harvest period, providing an early indication of thin market supplies. 

    Disaggregated rainfed maize production for the 2014/15 season decreased by approximately 25 to 30 percent compared to the previous season and the five-year average. In contrast, the latest irrigated maize production estimates indicate that this year’s production is above average; however, irrigated production usually contributes only 15 to 20 percent of total maize production . Other cereals, including millet and sorghum also registered at below-average levels. Cotton, a cash crop of cotton, also declined significantly this year. Usually Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC) posts are able to sell subsidized maize to households, but it was recently announced that ADMARC is suspending maize sales until October. This is expected to limit household options to purchase more affordable maize in the southern and central regions. The National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA) stocks are at approximately 35,000 MT.

    According to the Southern Africa Regional Supply and Market Outlook report, FEWS NET estimates that this year’s national maize deficit is approximately 500,000 MT.

    In the southern region of the country, some markets reported low maize supplies as early as June. However, in the traditionally surplus central and northern areas, maize market supplies are normal. Average national prices are higher than normal in the post-harvest period. Some maize prices are as much as 60 percent above the three-year average. The June Consumer Price Index (CPI) dropped slightly between May and June, but still indicates that the cost of living is high in Malawi.

    During this time of the season, households are typically selling some of their food and cash crops as necessary. However, this year households are selling less frequently, choosing to hold on to their stocks. Households are also participating in some agricultural labor for wetland cultivation in some areas. On average, wages from a day of labor are worth 4 kgs of maize, while selling a chicken is worth 15 kgs of maize.

    According to the 2015 Issue of the Food and Nutrition Working Group Regional Update, floods from earlier this year affected 1.14 million people. Some 336,000 were displaced. Approximately 64,000 hectares of crops were destroyed. UNICEF’s August Humanitarian Situation report indicated that an estimated 100,000 internally displaced people are still estimated to be in temporary shelters in Nsanje and Chikwawa districts. A nutrition Standardized Monitoring and Assessment of Relief and Transitions (SMART) survey lead by UNICEF was recently completed in flood-affected areas in July. Preliminary findings have yet to be released, but are expected in late August. Humanitarian assistance programming in the form of cash and food transfers for 620,000 people affected by heavy rains and flooding earlier this year, is expected to come to an end in July.

    National Level Assumptions

    The Food Security Outlook for July to December 2015 is based on the following national-level assumptions:

    Rainfed staple production and supplies: Third round national agricultural production figures from the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Water Development have shown that Malawi has registered a 30 percent reduction in production of the maize staple as compared to the previous season and a 24 percent production reduction as compared to the five-year average. The average 2015 prices for maize sold at the farm increased by about 30 percent when compared to the previous year, and FEWS NET estimates that this year’s national maize deficit is approximately 500,000 MT for the 2015/16 marketing year.

    In comparison to the 2013/14 season, cotton production for the 2014/15 season declined by about 40 percent and tobacco production decreased by about 5-20 percent. 

    Irrigated/winter staple production and supplies: Households with access to wetlands normally produce maize, beans, sweet potatoes, and vegetables for consumption and sale during the September to November period. However, April to May rainfall data in areas that usually participate in winter cultivation show that the mean rainfall during these months was significantly below average. It is assumed that below average rainfall and low residual moisture levels will lead to reductions in the irrigated crop harvests expected during the months of September-November. 

    Food and income sources:Reports from the Tobacco Commission show that last year’s and this year’s average leaf prices are at roughly the same levels, USD $ 1.74/kg, and USD$ 1.73/kg. Reports from the Cotton Development Trust show that cotton prices have reduced from MWK 220/kg last year to MWK 200/kg this year. Based on this information it is assumed that levels of localized tobacco and cotton production decreases will likely correlate to levels of decreased incomes for households.

    This year’s average price for maize sold on the farm is about 118 MWK/kg, compared to last year’s price of 84 MWK/kg, and 90 MWK/kg in 2013. This year’s farmer selling price is about 29 percent higher when compared to last year’s selling price. With national production down by 30 percent when compared to the previous year, it is assumed that this increase in producer prices will likely only benefit larger farmers that usually sell their maize. Smallholders that produced some maize will likely hold on to it for their own consumption and sell other crops like pulses, rice, and sweet potatoes. As stated above, lower than average incomes and food are expected from areas that usually participate in the irrigated/winter production due to poor residual moisture levels.

    The majority of households have access to maize meal, sweet potatoes, cassava, vegetables, and pulses for gravy. Poor households have access to similar foods, but at reduced quantities. Agricultural labor opportunities will be slightly lower than normal between July and September because of the below-average 2015 harvest. Typically, the October to December period is when most households are able to get labor by assisting with land preparation and cultivation, for the main season. Agriculture related labor wages range between 240-480 MWK/day. Competition is expected to be at its highest for agricultural labor between October and December because of higher demand by poor household members. Although competition will be high for labor opportunities during this period, there’s no indication as of yet that labor rates will decrease at that time. Additional livelihood activities for the period of July-December include self-employment, domestic work, and non-farm labor. 

    Staple food retail prices: National average maize prices were already 61 percent above the three-year average at a period when prices are normally at their lowest. FEWS NET’s price projections, based on month-to-month price trends, estimate that average national maize prices will likely be about 50 percent above the three-year average between July and September, possibly rising to levels that are 55 percent above the three-year average between October and December. During the July-December period, prices for alternative food commodities, particularly cereals, pulses, and cassava, will likely be about 20-50 percent above average prices. Above average staple and alternative food prices are expected to limit food access for some households, especially poor households during the October-December period.

    Informal trade: Maize imports substantially increased between May and June. June levels were 142 of the five-year average levels. This is in sharp contrast to the previous months, when imports were about 30 to 40 percent of the five-year average for that period. The latest increase may be an indication of increased household demand. Wholesalers are selling imported maize at prices that are 76 percent above the five-year average.

    El Niño forecasts: As positive sea surface temperatures (SSTs) continue across most of the Pacific Ocean, there is a 90 percent chance that an El Niño will continue to develop into the 2015/16 season in southern Africa. Based on historical trend analysis, El Niño conditions are associated with below-average rainfall between October and December, especially in the southeastern parts of the region. In previous El Niño years, the southern parts of Malawi were affected. Based on recent experiences during the 2014/15 season (when similar positive SST conditions were predicted), several areas in the region had a late start of season and erratic rains during the October to December period, resulting in below-average rainfall. Similar rainfall patterns are possible during this outlook period. However, it should be noted that in some El Niño years, including the 1997/98 season, the southern Africa region received above average rains and above-average harvests.

    Humanitarian assistance: In July, assistance in the form of cash and food transfers for people affected by severe flooding will end. The MVAC’s annual assessment identified that approximately 2.8 million people affected by severe floods and dryness during the 2014/15 season will need humanitarian assistance between October 2015 and March 2016. However, response plans and funding are still in the early stages, so no assistance programming is assumed for this outlook period.   

    Most Likely Food Security Outcomes

    July to September: The majority of poor households in the drought and flood affected areas are expected to finish consuming their own production between July and September. Most of these households will face a lot of competition for agricultural labor and may not earn as much income as they usually would. Households will also earn less income from food and cash crop sales due to reduced 2014/15 production levels. Staple and alternative food prices are expected to remain above average during this period, constraining food access slightly. Households in 11 districts in the southern region1, five districts in the central region2, and three districts in the north3 will be Stressed (IPC Phase 2) due to dryness and drought conditions earlier this year.

    October to December: Households will have limited access to food and income from irrigated/winter cropping from September to November. Competition for labor is expected to continue to increase during this period, as well as prices for food in local markets. This period is typically the peak period for agricultural labor, when people are hired for land preparation activities. However, demand for labor during this period are uncertain as an El Niño event is expected to take place at the start of the main season, possibly delaying the start of the season. An estimated 1.65 million people will be Stressed (IPC Phase 2), while approximately 1 million will be in Crisis (IPC Phase 3) during this period.



    1Balaka, Blantyre Rural, Chikwawa, Chiradzulu, Machinga, Mangochi, Mulanje, Nsanje, Phalombe, Thyolo, and Zomba districts.

    2Mchinji, Dowa, Kasungu, Salima, and Dedza districts.

    3Rumphi, Mzimba, and Karonga districts.

    Figures Seasonal Calendar for Malawi

    Figure 1

    Seasonal Calendar for a Typical Year

    Source: FEWS NET

    Current acute food security outcomes, July 2015.

    Figure 2

    Current acute food security outcomes, July 2015.

    Source: FEWS NET

    Figure 1. National maize production trends.

    Figure 3

    Figure 1. National maize production trends.

    Source: FEWS NET

    Figure 2. National average maize price trends.

    Figure 4

    Figure 2. National average maize price trends.

    Source: FEWS NET

    Figure 1


    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.

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