Why Are People in Malawi So Hungry?

How climate change has wreaked havoc on an otherwise tranquil nation.

A child eats porridge at a primary school in Chikhwawa, Malawi. (All photos Clive Mear/Tearfund)

Maxwell Nkosi and his wife Mcuzi sit across from me on a wooden bench outside their tiny mud brick house in Pende, a village in the southern region of Malawi. Seated between them are two of their six children, small girls wiggling quietly while the grownups talk; a son plays nearby. One of the girls holds an aluminum dish filled with small white granules which she scoops up with her fingers to eat, a few at a time. Upon request, Mcuzi hands the bowl to her visitors to inspect. The grain inside is millet. Americans use it as birdseed.


Millet is a more drought-resistant crop than the corn that has been the staple crop of Malawi for centuries. When the Nkosi family harvested their first millet, Mcuzi tells one of my colleagues, the children wouldn't eat it. "I had to convince them it was food," she says. While she speaks, her husband sits with arms folded into his lean frame, one thin leg crossed over the other. One hand holds a small Bible. He uses the other hand to shield his eyes from the growing glare of the sun, rubbing them occasionally. Maxwell has been sleepless at night, kept up by worry over the future of his eldest son, whose government-paid primary school education will soon end when the boy completes the eighth grade. The family has no income to pay for education beyond that. Unlike their parents before them, they cannot even produce enough food to eat, let alone pay for secondary school.

Despite such worries, Maxwell has dreams for his children: he wants them to be educated, independent, and eventually able to support themselves -- and him, too, in his old age. He cannot see how this can be achieved, however. All he can do is lie awake at night and worry.

Maxwell is not alone. Eighty-five percent of Malawians live in rural areas, according to the country's 2008 census. Agriculture is the basis of the lifestyle and economy of this sliver of a country bordered by Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania in sub-Saharan southeast Africa. But this isn't the type of government-subsidized agriculture found in the American Midwest. The vast majority of farming in the country of 15 million -- one of the world's most densely populated nations -- consists of subsistence-level rain-fed agriculture. According to the country's United Nations' National Adaptation Programme of Action, 60 percent of its farmers experience food insecurity year-round. Maxwell says that years ago, the land produced enough food to feed a family all year. Now it typically produces enough for less than half the year. Villager after villager interviewed by our team, assembled by the Evangelical Environmental Network and hosted by Eagles International, a Malawian relief organization, shared similar stories.

Why does a peaceful, democratic republic such as Malawi -- dubbed "the warm heart of Africa," home of a legendary lake the size of a small state, and boasting the still-standing tree under which the Scottish missionary David Livingstone negotiated with slave-traders to free the slaves in the mid-1800s -- have so many hungry people?

As is the case with all of the word's hungry, it's complicated. But the problem is not unsolvable.

Malawi's hunger predicament, to be sure, is multi-faceted. A combination of inadequate infrastructure, geographical realities, an ineffectual political system, and changing weather patterns has created a perfect storm of food scarcity.

The most obvious problem to a first time, first world visitor is the nation's lack of infrastructure. Some major highways, still under construction, are just wide swaths of dirt. Pedestrians, bicyclists, and livestock stream precariously along each side of every road. Fast-moving vehicles remain ever ready to slow and honk at unshperherded goats wandering into traffic; to strike one would be like stealing food from a family's table. Electric lines are strung from the cities along the roadways, providing energy to clusters of shops in the marketplaces that crop along every several miles of road. But none of the villages we visit have electricity. One official tells us that 90 to 95 percent of Malawians live off the grid. A typical family might have one "torch," a kind of flashlight consisting of batteries bound together, and a few small LCD lights that glow when an attached wire is held against an electrode.

In the tiny village of Thomu, I ask Charlie Smart, 56 and the father of 10 children, how he thinks his life might change if his village were to gain electricity. Through a translator, he scoffs, "Without more food, I wouldn't be able to pay the bill. We need more food."

Maxwell Nkosi and his wife, Mcuzi, and daughter in Pende Village, Malawi

Yet Charlie is one of the more successful villagers we meet. His community has developed its own savings and loan program through which he was able to save enough to buy the pig that roots about in the dirt as we talk in the shade. Now he is saving to buy metal sheets to replace the thatched grass roof on his home.

It is time for the weekly Village Savings and Loan meeting. We cut our conversation with Charlie short; members who are late to the meeting are fined. Twenty-five members, about half of them women, gather outdoors into a circle around a heavy steel box that serves as their bank. The box is opened by three key holders who open each lock one at a time. Inside the box are cash, rosters, passbooks, and financial records. At the end of a long, highly-ritualized meeting, during which each member has the opportunity to buy shares in the company, make loan payments, and contribute to the community welfare fund, the monies added to the collective are tallied: about $51. These meager dollars and the independence and sustainability they represent will help this village withstand Malawi's food scarcity. And because local economies cultivate independence and sustainability, perhaps such dollars will reap greater rewards than the millions of dollars of foreign aid that flows into the country each year.

The U.S. gives approximately $70 million annually in development assistance to Malawi. The U.K. (from whom Malawi gained independence in 1964) gives even more, providing 21 percent of all foreign aid Malawi receives. (However, Great Britain frequently complains of inadequate progress and reporting on the funding.)

Colonialism's promise of bringing progress to occupied countries seems here, as in so many other places, to have gone unfulfilled. Lacking a strong foundation, Malawi's government during its half century of post-colonial independence has been described variously as authoritarian, turbulent, and corrupt. The current administration has made progress, but is seemingly ineffectual in empowering the nation, one of the world's poorest, to overcome its challenges. In a country with little internal economic development (China has invested heavily in Malawi since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 2007), government seems to function mainly as a source of employment, wealth, and power. As one NGO official told me, "Politics is business." And with most of the country's citizens impoverished, undereducated, and off the grid, even democratic elections offer little accountability for those elected by the very few.

So most go hungry.

Of course, the hunger problem is bigger than the country's people. Geography plays a part, too. Malawi is a landlocked country with infertile soil in a region prone to natural disasters, which are only increasing in frequency. Between 1970 and 2006 Malawi experienced 40 weather-related disasters, with 16 of them occurring after 1990. The areas affected by these weather events have increased as well: Before 2001, only nine districts in Malawi were classified as flood-prone, but now that number has more than tripled. Just last month , heavy rains destroyed hundreds of homes in the southern region of the country. Drought is an even worse problem than flooding. In the droughts of 1987, 1992, 1994, 2004, and 2005, Malawi was reported as the country most affected. Over the last three decades, uneven rainfall -- which, regardless of total rainfall amounts, creates cycles of drought and flood that destroy crops -- have triggered the current crop shortages.

It wasn't always this way, the villagers tell us again and again. In their parents' generation, within their own lifetimes even, the rainy season predictably lasted from November to April. Now the rains might come for only two or three months, not long enough to see the country's staple corn crops through. While decades ago rice was commonly grown, we don't meet any farmers who dare to grow such a thirsty plant now. Instead of corn, farmers are growing more drought-resistant crops such as millet, sorghum, sweet potato, and cassava. Still, it is not enough.

In the village of Chikalumpha, Felesta Chimpina is headmistress of the pre-school where children who attend are usually assured at least one meal a day: a bowl of pasty white porridge cooked over a fire. Some days, however, there is no porridge. When asked how she feels when she's unable to provide those under her care with food, Felesta answers, "Bitter." She has hope, though: She dreams that one day one of the children from the pre-school will become a Member of Parliament who will come back and represent their village.

Long before the government and NGOs came around to the villages to preach about climate change, a phrase on the lips of every villager we meet, the villagers possessed indigenous knowledge of changing weather patterns. Subsistence-level farmers in Malawi are feeling the effects of changing weather patterns every day. Only in the United States is climate change a political debate; in the rest of the world it is a phenomenological reality.

Rural farmers are adapting their practices to adjust to the varying weather. For example, many villages are initiating reforestation projects. In Fombe -- where torrential rains caused the course of a nearby river to change, wiping out homes -- the village used contributions collected from each household to plant 5,000 trees that will help keep the river on its course.

Along with crop diversification and reforestation, Malawian villages are applying chemical weed killers to the fields, planting seeds in square holes that hold water longer, and using manure and leaves as fertilizer and mulch. Verena, a widowed mother of six and a farmer in Pende, describes her use of these latter two practices, which have been so successful that she now uses one room in her two-room house to store sorghum stalks piled high.

"Climate change is more challenging to our country than HIV-AIDS because it affects everyone," explains Vincent Moyo, country representative for Tearfund, a British Christian relief agency, referring to the devastating HIV-AIDS crisis from which the country has just emerged. "Climate change is carrying with it a slow death," he says.

Back in Chikalumpha, Felesta Chimpina's husband Davis wants to send a message to the U.S.: "We have to be clever farmers because the climate is changing," he acknowledges. "But technology users in America need to be clever, too. Let's listen to the experts on climate change and adapt our technologies."

He says it like his life depends on it.