Construction worker Symon Phatiko walks out of a large retail store with a plastic bag of groceries, wondering how he’s going to feed his family on less than a dollar a day when inflation is galloping at about 25 per cent.
After flooding and drought devastated Malawi’s crops, international agencies are sounding the alarm too, saying that some three million people, including 500,000 children, are at risk of starvation.
“The costs of consumer goods are rising every day,” Phatico tells Equal Times. “The cost of maize is very high and the crops in our gardens are not promising. The maize has become too expensive just as some groceries have become a luxury.”
Phatiko earns 21,000 Malawian Kwacha (US$30) per month, which he says makes it impossible for him to effectively budget for his 10-member nuclear family comprising of his wife, three children, mother and four siblings (and himself).
Like most Malawians, they grow much of their own food, and maize is the main staple.
After flooding blamed on El Niño weather cycles caused a deep production shortfall, the state-run agricultural monopoly ADMARC (Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation) bought 55,000 metric tons of the grain from neighbouring Zambia and local suppliers.
But logistical problems are slowing distribution.
What’s more, Equal Times observed widespread price-gouging while visiting the southern Malawi districts of Balaka, Neno, Chikhwawa and Mulanje and the central Malawi district of Ntcheu.
While the government-subsidised price is MWK5,500 (US$7.80) at ADMARC, vendors on the parallel market are selling it at prices nearly double that or more – ranging between MWK10,000 (U$ 14.40) and MWK14,0000 (US$20.10).
“Vendors are bargaining on the hunger situation which has been made worse by the economic hardship,” Ellen Banda, a consumer from Mulanje, tells Equal Times.
Meanwhile, as El Niño continues to raise fears of another bad growing season, the ever-rising cost of basic consumer goods is hitting Malawians hard. John Kapito, the executive director of the Consumer Association of Malawi (CAMA), says Malawi is in a state of economic disaster.
“We need to identify the key basic commodities that we can buy. As the situation currently stands, we can project that life will continue being hard for Malawians.”
While 90 percent of Malawians depend on rain-fed subsistence farming, a recent World Food Programme (WFP) statement says the food crisis in Malawi and across the entire southern Africa region is of increasing concern.
Last year’s poor harvest following floods that hit Malawi and other southern African countries has been followed by the worst drought this year.
“Worst-affected in the region by last year’s poor rains is Malawi […] where harvests were reduced by half compared to the previous year because of the massive crop failure,” reads the WFP statement.
The WFP warns that the number of people without food could rise significantly over the next months, with the price of maize in Malawi 73 per cent higher than the three-year average for this time of year.
A November 2015 Oxfam report titled Entering Uncharted Waters: El Niño and the threat to food security found that at least two million Malawians – one in eight – will struggle to find food.
A darker assessment comes from the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) – composed of the government, UN agencies and NGOs. It estimates that 2.8 million Malawians are in urgent need of humanitarian food aid.
And it could worsen further, since 85 per cent of Malawi’s 16 million people live in rural areas and are dependent on subsistence agriculture.
James Okoth, Resilience Programmes Officer at the UN Food Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Malawi, thinks that as climate change starts showing its wrath, there is a need to equip Malawians with adaptation mechanisms.
“Agricultural productivity in the wake of climate change can only be boosted if we modernise irrigation technologies. We also need to encourage subsistence farmers to plant crops that resist the waves of climate change such as cassava and potatoes,” said Okoth. That approach is impeded by expensive technology, lack of training and inability of local communities to mobilise finances. As a result, community and state-run irrigation projects collapse into disrepair.
“Responses to climate change shocks are mostly reactive in Malawi, however, there is need to have an institutionalised adaptation framework in all local governments,” says Elijah Wanda of Mzuzu University.
Meanwhile, the high inflation will persist if the government of Malawi does not find a solution to the depreciation of the nation’s currency, believes Rafiq Hajat, executive director of the Institute of Policy Interaction (IPI).
“It is going to be impossible to stop the rise in basic consumer goods such as maize under the current state of affairs. Consumers will continue to suffer the effects of the depreciation of the Kwacha and the hunger situation. We are actually in an inflation crisis that has no end unless we have restored the stability of the Kwacha,” Hajat adds.
Amidst galloping inflation, the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU) has written to the government of Malawi to ask it to consider raising civil servant salaries and the country’s minimum wage, currently at MWK15,000 (US$21.30) a month for a six-day working week.
“We are also appealing to the private sector to do the same,” MCTU Secretary General Pontius Kalichero tells Equal Times. “We have also proposed to meet to work out a percentage on the wage increment.”
That couldn’t come soon enough for Symon Phatiko the construction worker and his family, who measure their survival visibility in weeks.
“We are currently going through hard economic situations,” he says, “and we cannot even afford to have decent food throughout the month.”