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Above-average harvest supports food access in rural areas, while COVID-19 impacts urban livelihoods

  • Food Security Outlook
  • Malawi
  • June 2020 - January 2021
Above-average harvest supports food access in rural areas, while COVID-19 impacts urban livelihoods

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  • Key Messages
  • Key Messages
    • Across most of the country, rural households are consuming food from the recent harvest, with Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes expected through January 2021. However, some areas in the southern and northern regions registered localized production shortfalls. In these areas, households who harvested less are expected to exhaust food stocks atypically early. In the worst affected areas, Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes are expected from September to December 2020, with Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes likely in January 2021.

    • In urban areas, many poor households are currently facing food and income gaps due to impacts of COVID-19 on the economy. Households dependent on trading, casual labor, and employment in domestic labor, teaching, hospitality, and the tobacco sector have been worst affected by reduced income-earning. Due to lack of alternative livelihood options and limited savings, Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes are expected through September 2020, with Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes then expected through January 2021 alongside economic recovery and resumption of income-earning.

    • According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, Malawi has likely produced over 3.7 million tons of maize – about 11 percent above last year and 28 percent above the five-year average. Production of most other key food and cash crops is expected to be above average. However, production of tobacco is expected to be approximately 6 percent below last year and 10 percent below average. Production of cotton is also expected to be below average, given declines over the past six years. Reduced production of these crops will likely reduce income-earning for some households. Meanwhile, retail prices for the maize staple are expected to remain significantly above average through at least January 2021.


    Current Situation

    Currently, most rural households across Malawi are consuming food from own production and earning income from crop sales. As a result, most households who were previously facing Stressed (IPC Phase 2) and Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes throughout the lean season – including those who had been receiving humanitarian food assistance through March – have transitioned to Minimal (IPC Phase 1). Very poor households across all the rural livelihood zones in Malawi typically get about 10 to 40 percent of their food from own production and 10 to 60 percent of their income from own crop sales. Meanwhile, in urban areas, some low-income households have partly lost their livelihoods due to COVID-19 impacts on the economy, with Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes expected.

    The harvest typically occurs from April to June, with the peak crop sales period extending through to August. Harvesting was completed in May in the southern region, and is mostly completed in June in the central and northern regions. According to second round production estimates by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MoAFS), the 2019/20 season was above average overall, with increases in the production of most key crops. The MoAFS estimates that Malawi has produced approximately 3.78 million metric tons of the maize staple – 11.5 percent above last year and 28 percent above the five-year average – as well as increases over last year’s production of other key crops such as legumes, tubers, and other cash crops (Table 1).

    Despite the overall above-average production, some areas experienced localized production shortfalls due to weather-related hazards. In northern Malawi, parts of Rumphi and Karonga districts experienced some flooding and waterlogging that damaged crops. In central Malawi, Salima district experienced early cessation of rainfall in February that impacted crop maturation. In southern Malawi, Nsanje and Chikwawa districts – as well as parts of Phalombe, Balaka, Mwanza, Neno, Zomba, and Chiradzulu districts – experienced localized dry spells and erratic rainfall which resulted in localized areas of below-average production. Additionally, some southern areas including Balaka and parts of Blantyre, Zomba, Machinga, and Neno registered relatively low production of cereals, pulses, and cotton. Meanwhile, in the central and northern tobacco-producing regions, production of this key cash crop was slightly below average due to production quota restrictions based on buyer demand.

    As a result of the favorable harvest, overall national food availability is currently above average. However, maize stocks in the national grain storage institutions – namely ADMARC and National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA) – remain low, as the two institutions nearly depleted their stocks during the last consumption season. According to the latest available information including the 2020/21 budget statement released in June, ADMARC and the NFRA are targeting purchases of over 200,000 MT of maize by August 2020. Normally, the NFRA stocks over 200,000 MT as strategic grain reserves and for humanitarian response, while ADMARC typically sells around 50,000 MT of maize in a year at subsidized prices. On June 9, ADMARC announced that it had purchased 13,000 MT of maize grain, but stated that it would likely acquire around half of its normal annual purchases. ADMARC continues to purchase maize at an atypically high price of MWK 200/kg. Meanwhile, the NFRA floated a tender and selected suppliers for maize grain in April, but the current status of NFRA procurement is unknown.

    In May 2020, maize prices in the national reference market of Mitundu averaged MWK 148/kg according to MoAFS price data and remained fairly steady relative to April. Despite decreasing by 55 percent between February and April 2020 as the harvest boosted market supplies, maize prices in May 2020 remained 41 percent higher than last year and 44 percent higher than the five-year average. Meanwhile, in the northern region where harvesting occurs later, maize prices markets in the markets of Jenda, Karonga, and Mzuzu continued to fall by between 32-40 percent from April to May, attributed to increased market supply as harvesting continued. Meanwhile, farmgate prices for maize and other food commodities are higher than both last year and average levels, largely due to the government’s decision to set higher minimum farmgate prices. For example, the minimum farmgate price for maize is currently MWK 200/kg as opposed to MWK 150/kg or lower in previous years.

    On April 2, 2020, Malawi confirmed its first case of COVID-19. As of June 29, Malawi had registered a total of 1,152 positive cases, including 260 recoveries and 13 deaths. At the end of May, the number of confirmed cases rose sharply from just over 100 at to over 200 due to the return of Malawian travelers and permanent residents who had been stranded due to border closures, mainly in South Africa. Currently, many people are not respecting social distancing guidelines originally provided by the government, with large crowds gathering for campaign rallies in advance of the late June elections.

    Prior to the first confirmed case of COVID-19, the Malawian government enacted preventative control measures including increased screening at borders, bans on large public gatherings, and school closures. Since that time, no additional control measures have been enacted; though the government announced a national lockdown in April, this was not implemented after a court issued an injunction over lack of government assistance plans, with no subsequent challenge by the government. Meanwhile, most restrictions on public gatherings have been implicitly relaxed.

    Despite this, Malawi is currently experiencing a slowdown in economic activity due to both domestic and global impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak and control measures. Global impacts of the pandemic have led to a slowdown in trade. As a result, businesses dependent on manufacturing and small-scale cross-border trade have slowed down or been temporarily suspended, also affecting workers and traders in these sectors. Furthermore, the trading and marketing of the key cash crops of tobacco and cotton have been impacted. Tobacco auctioning is taking place in the absence of farmers, most of whom are complaining of lower prices. Cotton buyers have been seeking to buy at lower than government-recommended prices, as their international markets are restricted by the COVID-19 lockdowns. Due to the closure of schools, teachers in private schools and colleges have been without pay since May. As a result of the overall general slowdown in economic activity, some businesses have closed and employees have been laid off or sent on leave without pay. As a result, demand for casual labor in urban areas has declined.

    Overall, low-income urban households have been worst affected by the economic slowdown and declining income-earning opportunities. Due to lack of alternative livelihood options, minimal savings, and dependence on markets for food, many are expected to be facing food and income gaps. No significant humanitarian food assistance is currently being provided.

    In rural areas, households are expected to be accessing normal levels of labor, mainly in irrigated farming as well as in some harvesting and crop marketing activities. Households are also expected to be engaging in typical levels of self-employment activities such as collecting and selling firewood, making and selling quarry stone, making and selling crafts, and bicycle taxi services. This is a slow period for labor and self-employment, as households meet most of their needs from own crops. This is also a time of relatively low agricultural activity.

    The prevalence of malnutrition among children under five remains low. According to the most recent nutrition SMART survey conducted in July 2019, the overall national prevalence of Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) was low at 0.5 percent (95% CI: 0.3 - 1.0), which falls within “acceptable” levels according to WHO classification. During the recent lean period from October 2019 to March 2020, many food insecure households were supported by humanitarian food assistance via either cash or in-kind modalities. This is expected to have prevented most households from facing prolonged consumption gaps, thus mitigating any related seasonal increases in acute malnutrition.


    The Food Security Outlook for June 2020 to January 2021 is based on the following national-level assumptions:

    • Based on global trends and available information from leading health experts including the WHO and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the global COVID-19 pandemic is likely to continue in the near to medium term (1-6 months), and increasing incidence is likely in Malawi through at least August/September.
    • Based on the behavior of government including lack of any challenge to the lockdown injunction, pre-election campaigning, and a relaxation of enforcement of existing control measures, a national lockdown or other internal movement restrictions to control COVID-19 remain unlikely in the near term (1-3 months). As a result, households are expected to engage in normal livelihood activities throughout the scenario period, though some reductions in income-earning are expected due to impacts on businesses and the general economic slowdown resulting from COVID-19 control measures and supply chain disruptions.
    • Maize production at the national level is expected to be above average. However, areas of localized below-average production are expected in southern Nsanje and Chikwawa districts and some other northern and southern areas.
    • Levels of informal cross border trade inflows, especially of the maize staple, will likely be slightly below average overall owing to an above-average production year. However, large maize purchases by state institutions – namely ADMARC and the National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA) – as well as by commercial companies as they restock will likely result in an initial increase in informally imported maize in the June to July period as traders strive to fulfill their supply quotas. Normally, traders buy grain from border points with Zambia and Mozambique due to lower prices as well as availability of large quantities in one place, which enables them to meet supply quotas even in normal years. There will likely be no significant formal maize imports by the government given anticipated above-average production.
    • Given low opening stocks as well as announced procurement plans, ADMARC and the NFRA will likely continue maize purchases through around August 2020. This will boost the national strategic grain reserves (SGR) as well as ADMARC stocks for subsidized commercial sales. ADMARC will likely continue to purchase maize at an atypically high price of MWK 200/kg. According to latest information from the national budget statement and statements by ADMARC, the two institutions are expected to purchase about 240,000 MT of maize grain this season.
    • Cereal stocks at the household level will generally be average to above average throughout the country due to above average production. However, localized shortfalls especially in southern Malawi and some parts of northern Malawi will be experienced. These households will likely start running out of stocks from September to December 2020.
    • Households will likely earn average to above average incomes from crop sales from mid-April to August. Marketing for most crops is taking place normally including country-wide maize purchases by ADMARC. However, due to COVID-19 impacts on marketing activities of tobacco and cotton, as well as below-average tobacco production, income from cash crop sales will likely be slightly below average.
    • From June to September, livestock herd sizes and prices will likely be average as households will be engaged in normal sales. However, livestock herd levels will remain slightly below average for households in southern Malawi that have undergone two to three years of acute food insecurity. Livestock sales are expected to seasonally peak during the lean period from October 2020 to January 2021. With most households realizing average to above average crop production, desperate sales will likely be lower than normal and prices will likely be average to above average.
    • From June to September, overall agricultural labor opportunities and rates will likely be about normal at the national level. However, labor availability and rates in tobacco producing areas of northern and central Malawi will likely register some decreases owing to reduced tobacco production and resultant reduced incomes for households who hire labor. In the October to January period which is the peak agricultural labor period, most households will access normal levels of labor opportunities. However, for households in the Lower Shire Livelihood Zone districts of Nsanje and Chikwawa, labor access and wages will likely be below average throughout the scenario period as the area experienced weather-related production reductions that will negatively impact livelihoods.
    • Throughout the outlook period, non-agricultural labor opportunities and wages for poor and very poor households will likely be at normal levels overall due to normal to above normal production in most districts. However, the current COVID-19 related economic slowdown is likely to negatively impact labor availability and wages in the near term, especially for low income urban households. Reduced labor access and wages are also likely in the Lower  Shire Livelihood Zone – which experienced production gaps – and in some tobacco growing central and northern region areas where tobacco growing households have experienced reduced tobacco production.
    • Labor migration to neighboring districts of Malawi as well as to Zambia and Mozambique is expected to be normal during the scenario period, due to lack of internal movement restrictions in Malawi and given that informal border crossing points used by Malawians seeking work in Zambia and Mozambique are porous.
    • Self-employment activities such as the sale of firewood, charcoal, and handcrafts, as well as bicycle taxiing, and petty trading will be at normal levels in terms of quantity, with wages/prices likely to be average overall. However, demand and wages/prices will likely be reduced in urban areas in the near term due to impacts of COVID-19 economic slowdown.
    • Preliminary international forecasts show that Malawi will likely receive average rainfall in beginning of the coming rainfall season from October 2020 to January 2021. This will likely lead to a normal production season. However, uncertainty exists given the long-term nature of the forecast.
    • Overall production of irrigated crops is expected to be normal to above normal nationally, supporting household food stocks in areas that have irrigable land. Irrigated harvests will likely be accessible in the October to November period. However, irrigated production will likely be reduced in areas that experienced localized rainfall shortages.
    • According to FEWS NET integrated price projections, prices for maize grain at Mitundu, the national reference market, are expected to trend significantly above five-year average levels between July and September 2020 (Figure 1). Maize prices will likely follow seasonal trends, increasing between October and January as household and market stocks are depleted and more households begin to rely on the market.
    • Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) prevalence rates among children under five years of age will likely remain low and within “acceptable” levels (GAM<5%) throughout the outlook period. With sustained food access from the current average to above average harvests, malnutrition levels are expected to remain stable.
    • Despite the recent slowdown of economic activity, the macroeconomy is anticipated to broadly remain stable at the national level in the first half of the scenario period, given the recent maize harvest as well as recent foreign exchange inflows from tobacco sales. Inflation in Malawi is largely driven by maize, which contributes about half of the value of the consumer price index (CPI). However, impacts of the economic slowdown due to COVID-19 are likely to become visible around September/October 2020 as food stocks deplete, with upward pressure on food prices expected. 

    Most Likely Food Security Outcomes

    Overall, most rural areas are likely to experience favorable food security conditions and Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes throughout the projection period. This is largely due to above-average production of both food and cash crops, which will support households’ ability to consume food from own production, supplemented with some purchases. Only a few areas – mostly in the deficit-producing southern region, small parts of the northern region, and Salima district in the central region – experienced some production shortfalls. As such, some households in these areas will likely exhaust food stocks atypically early and are expected to experience Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes. In the areas worst affected by poor production including Nsanje and Chikwawa (especially the areas farther away from the irrigable Shire River Valley), area-level Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes are expected from September to December 2020, with Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes likely to emerge in December 2020/January 2021. Area-level Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes are also expected in the central Salima district and several southern districts in the Middle Shire Livelihood Zone which have been impacted by relatively low levels of production and reduced income from cash crop sales on top of eroded resilience from poor previous seasons.

    Due to lingering impacts of COVID-19 on the economy, many urban households are likely to continue facing income and food gaps, particularly impacting low-income households in the urban centers of Blantyre, Zomba, Lilongwe, and Mzuzu. As a result, many urban poor households are expected to continue facing Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes through September 2020, with Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes expected following that.

    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


    Worse than anticipated spread of COVID-19, and extension of preventive measures

    This would likely prolong negative impacts on the economy, including reduced business activity and fewer jobs. An increase in the number of urban poor facing income gaps would be likely. As a result, an increase in the scale and severity of acute food insecurity would be expected in urban areas, with Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes expected to persist in urban areas beyond September 2020 in the absence of assistance. An increasing number of middle and better-off wealth groups are also likely to be impacted by reductions in income-earning. Further spread would also likely affect rural areas where at present there are no confirmed cases. Food insecurity would increase for rural households as they exhaust food stocks and become reliant on markets for food. In the worst-case scenario, farming for the next season would also be negatively impacted.


    Government enacts more strict control measures along the lines of internal movement restrictions or a full lockdown

    Nationwide, economic activities such as crop sales and trade would likely be disrupted. Disruption in ADMARC markets and private traders failing to bring maize grain to markets would also lead to low or depletion of staple food supplies at the household level. Disruption in transport systems would likely lead to some food supply shortages as food is transported from surplus producing areas to deficit areas. Food prices would likely increase in some areas as a result, reducing market-dependent households’ access to food in both urban and rural areas as the lean season progresses.

    In urban areas, access to income would likely be severely disrupted by such restrictions. Under strict lockdown measures, households may fail to access markets for food. Food prices would likely increase in urban areas due to supply chain disruptions. As a result, access to food would further reduce as the lean season progresses and food prices increase, with an increasing number of households likely to face Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse outcomes throughout the projection period.


    Erratic start to the 2020/21 rainfall season and/or below-average rainfall amounts

    This would negatively affect the start of the agricultural season, reducing demand for labor during the peak time of agricultural activity. Very poor and poor households rely heavily on labor exchange for food and income during the lean period. Given the importance of the labor exchange, Stressed (IPC Phase 2) or worse outcomes would be expected to emerge more quickly in many areas.

     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 table comparing second-round production estimates for the 2019/20 season to third-round production estimates for th

    Figure 1

    Table 1

    Source: Malawi Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security

    This is a graph showing that prices are expected to increase between May 2020 and February 2021, and remain above average dur

    Figure 2

    Figure 1

    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.

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