Food quantity, variety

Those who write on economic histories of African countries say that within a decade or two after attaining independence, some of them were importing food. This was interpreted as mismanagement of economic affairs because Africa had more empty and fertile land than other continents.

In the 1970s, President H. Kamuzu Banda told the nation that Malawi had been declared a star performer economically by the United Nations (UN). More than two decades ago, I did come across a UN publication which complimented Malawi exactly as Dr Banda had said.

But wait a minute; the economy was heading for collapse when the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and donors imposed stiff conditionalities for helping Malawi. There had to be privatisation of State enterprises, retrenchments of the civil service, gradual phasing out of subsidies and so on.

During the United Democratic Front (UDF) regime, the late Minister of Agriculture Aleke K. Banda introduced starter packs whereby a package of agricultural inputs was given to some selected farmers. For two years, Malawi experienced yields such as she had not known for decades. The government or its agencies exported some of the maize to neighbouring countries.

The starter pack scheme had to be discontinued because of the objections of donors.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) president late Bingu wa Mutharika defied the donors and reinstated subsidies on a grand scale. A big harvest followed. The world or part of it was impressed. Even such quality papers as Britain’s The Economist commented favourably.

Malawians themselves, especially DPP stalwarts, praised the president from their house tops.

Another anti-climax followed; we are living under its shadow of importing and begging food.

There are people who say during the Kamuzu era, Malawi never experienced famines. They have been misinformed. During the one-party era, there was only one newspaper which was owned by the president himself. It never published any story that would reflect badly on the regime.

Why has Malawi been unable to maintain years of good harvests? The reason is that our policymakers have not been advised of the causes when good or bad harvests have occurred.

Sustainable development takes place when officials keep records. Did we understand the reasons we achieved good harvest in certain years and failed in other years? If we understood then we should be operating according to formulas: Do those things which ensure good harvest and avoid those which result in poor harvests.

We have been failing all along because we have not been learning from our experience or other countries. Several decades ago, I read in The Economist about an Israeli agricultural expert named Daniel Benor who went to India under the auspices of the UN. The advice he gave to smallholders there was part of the explanation of the Green Revolution in South East Asia.

Why do we not send a few agricultural experts to that part of the world, spend a month or so and try to learn how they manage to perpetuate good agricultural yields.

Besides quantity of the staple food, we must introduce variety into our menu. Why do we feel that only maize nsima can sustain life? When we send students to study abroad, do they eat maize nsima there?

In the late 1930s, an anthropologist called Dr Margaret Read visited the Ngoni Paramount Chief Gomani of Ntcheu who told her his people had forgotten better nutritious foods their forefather had been eating and were instead rushing for foreign foods some of which were not nutritious.

During my boyhood days when we had bushes and forests around villages, we supplemented garden foods with what we could pluck in the wilds. Those forests have disappeared. The food people eat in town is monotonous mgaiwa bread, beans and little else. Our restaurateurs and colleges of community development should introduce new varieties of food. Why not make a kind of Mungarian goulash out of potatoes and cassava?

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