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More drought across sub-Saharan Africa

March 4, 2024

In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, smallholder subsistence farmers face miles of withering fields. Government subsidies can only help so much, while solutions are slow to be implemented.

A dried up maize field in Malawi
Maize is a staple in many sub-Saharan countries but this year's harvest will leave many hungryImage: Mirriam Kaliza/DW

Rain has finally returned to Malawi after weeks and weeks of severe drought, but it's too little, too late for local farmer Saidi M'madi.

In Malawi's southern region of Mangochi, M'madi, a father of six, stares out at his field, feeling like all of his work in recent months was entirely in vain.

"In December, we lost everything. So we uprooted what was planted and started all over again," he told DW.

"A lot of crops are destroyed. I don't know what to do," he added despondently, knowing that the recent rainfall cannot revive any of his crops after two consecutive tries.

As M'madi ponders what the future may hold, his only hope is for the government to continue to step in as best it can and help subsidize farmers.

Dozens of people are seen waiting for food aid in Malawi
Malawians are increasingly depending on food aid after a series of devastating droughtsImage: Mirriam Kaliza/DW

Malawi is currently reaching out to 4.4 million people, according to figures published by the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) in early August last year.

Those assisted by the government amount to about 22% of Malawi's population of 19.6 million, up by 15% compared to the previous year.

In a joint statement, the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) pointed out that after several droughts, Malawi is now "experiencing the worst food insecurity in a decade," as 90% of cultivated land in Malawi depends on rain.

National disaster in Zambia

The UN organizations note that elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, many nations have experienced similar levels of hardship.

The two agencies estimate that 27.4 million people in southern Africa will face hunger in the next six months due to poor harvests following a series of 14 extreme droughts within the past two decades, far more than on any other continent.

The drought crisis comes two years after the Global Hunger Index rated 37 out of 54 African countries as reaching levels of hunger described as "serious" or worse.

The areas facing immediate threats include Madagascar and Zimbabwe, according to the UN.

A woman is seen plowing a maize field in Mozambique
The drought crisis is now affecting many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, including Mozambique (pictured)Image: JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP

In an article on NewsDay, a daily newspaper and online news platform in Zimbabwe, a 69-year-old woman with 20 years of experience in farming described the unprecedented nature of the situation as "one of the worst droughts I have ever seen."

"Last season was poor, and now we don't know what we will eat," she said.

In neighboring Zambia, up to 70% percent of agricultural fields have also experienced similar dry spells in the country's Eastern Province, according to recent assessments.

Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema has declared drought a national disaster after 84 out of 116 districts saw no rains for over five weeks, saying that more than 1 million families of Zambian farmers will be affected.

Peter Zulu, the acting chief agriculture economist in the Ministry of Agriculture, recently told the Lusaka Times daily newspaper that maize crops were particularly affected, with little hope for any meaningful yield.

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Irrigation to the rescue

According to AGRA, an African-led partnership that strives to ensure that Africa can become self-sufficient in agriculture, food production in sub-Saharan Africa depends almost exclusively on rain-fed agriculture.

However, this leaves farmers and rural communities vulnerable to increasingly erratic rainfall patterns and extreme climate conditions.

AGRA notes that although irrigation in Africa has the potential to boost agricultural productivity by 50%, the area currently equipped for irrigation is estimated at only 13 million hectares, which makes up just 6% of the total cultivated area on the continent, compared to about 14% of land in Latin America and 37% in Asia.

A dried up maize field in Malawi
Hardly anything can be salvaged in many parts of Malawi this harvest seasonImage: Mirriam Kaliza/DW

In 2018, the Malabo Montpellier Panel, which is a group of international agriculture experts focused on food security in Africa, published a report highlighting that meeting irrigation needs has to become a top policy and long-term investment priority across Africa, showcasing that six African nations, including Mali, Kenya and South Africa were on the right trajectory.

However, that still leaves the vast majority of the continent trailing behind.

'Mega farms' in Malawi

Back in Malawi, Professor Zachary Kasomekera, chairperson on the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) Council, goes even a step further: He says that national governments should start introducing large-scale crop production initiatives in a model which he calls "mega farms."

Professor Zachary Kasomekera, chairperson on the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) Council
Zachary Kasomekera advocates a greater role of government in irrigation initiatives using "mega farms"Image: Mirriam Kaliza/DW

"My take and emphasis on this is that countries in sub-Saharan Africa must prioritize water resources and management. It is important that irrigation is well-funded. That way, we will do away with the persistent food insecurities," he told DW.

This comes after Malawi's President Lazarus Chakwera launched a "mega farm" initiative in his country last year.

Among those assisting the program is the FAO, which is working with the Malawi an Government to rehabilitate 34 irrigation schemes. The UN agency is also increasing access to financing solution to 127,000 smallholder farmers in rural areas to adopt climate-smart technologies.

From malnutrition to malpractice

The government hopes that the "mega farm" initiative will help rewrite the region's food insecurity narrative. However, previous government initiatives to bolster food security in Malawi have only yielded limited success:

The Affordable Inputs Program (AIP), first introduced as the Farm Inputs Subsidy Program (FISP) in 2004, was intended to increase agricultural productivity and support income-strapped households.

However, the most recent implementation investigations into AIP published last month in an interim update paint a grim picture: Ombudsman Grace Malera said there were reports of widespread malpractice, which heavily affects the program's stated goals. 

"The costs associated with the program generally exceed the benefits," she said.

Minister of Agriculture Sam Kawale said he would wait for the full report to act, while Finance Minister Simplex Chithyola Banda announced he still planned to increase the AIP budget by over a third to the equivalent of just under $100 million.

The anti-poverty charity ActionAid meanwhile also notes that AIP is one of the main reasons for ongoing budget deficits at the Ministry of Agriculture.

From El Nino to climate change

Regardless of the success rates of such programs, there's hardly anything governments in the region can do to fight the major root causes of the drought crisis.

According to Oxfam, the persistent dry spells across southern Africa are exacerbated by an uptick in the effects of the El Nino Southern Oscillation climate phenomenon, resulting in atmospheric changes throughout the globe — including prolonged droughts in Africa.

And then there's global warming: In 2023, World Weather Attribution, an organization that studies how climate change influences the intensity and likelihood of extreme weather events at Imperial College London, announced that according to its latest study, the drought in the Horn of Africa would not have happened in a world without climate change.

Map of East Africa with regional lakes
There's no shortage of bodies of water in East Africa, but no infrastructure to use them for irrigation

But is Africa really that vulnerable to change and so dependent on rain that government subsidies are the only lifeline left for many farmers?

According to 2022 findings published by WaterAid and the British Geological Survey, many African nations do actually have abundant groundwater reserves, enough to survive at least five years of drought.

In the case of Malawi, there are also 13 perennial rivers and three lakes, including Lake Malawi, the fourth-largest freshwater body in the world by volume. The redirection of these resources hardly features in any plan to combat hunger as a result of drought.

While irrigation and "mega-farms" may provide new approaches to Africa's long-term food security problem, untapped resources such as groundwater systems and making use of river capillaries could likely provide relief for millions of people in the interim — especially if government investments were applied accordingly.

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Edited by: Sertan Sanderson

Mirriam Kaliza, DW-correspondent in Malawi
Mirriam Kaliza Mirriam is an experienced multimedia Malawian journalist with over a decade of expertise.@mirriamkaliza1