Famine in Malawi: the year 2002 as a benchmark

Famines were eradicated in Europe and Asia during the twentieth century. However, in Sub-Sahara, or southern Africa, famine remains a structural problem. The country Malawi is also located in this part of the continent and regularly suffers from food shortages that lead to famine. The 2002 famine is an important benchmark in the history of famine in Malawi. The famine in Malawi from 2001 to 2002 is considered the worst famine in the country’s history and left thousands dead. Even after 2002, food scarcity remains a major problem in the country.


  • Causes of the 2002 famine
  • Hunger in Malawi after 2002
  • Hunger remains a structural problem
  • Education and improvement of food security
  • Dealing with climatic conditions


Causes of the 2002 famine

Abnormal rainfall triggered the famine in 2001. Due to flooding and flooding in February and March of that year, maize production affected by these shocks fell by 32 percent. Incorrect information provided a major contributor to the food crisis. Misleading production estimates led to a failure to appreciate the seriousness of the situation and resulted in a slow response from involved actors. While aid organizations present reported high corn price increases and warned of an increase in food insecurity, nothing was done with this information. The government and foreign donors remained skeptical given that official statistics showed no sign of this problem. However, the government figures turned out to be unreliable and the data from the aid organizations turned out to be valid.

Another cause concerned the mismanagement of grain reserves in Malawi. To protect the country’s residents against fluctuations in food production, it was important to keep a stock on hand. However, in 2001, the reserve supply of grain was sold by the National Food Reserve Agency, or NFRA, on the advice of the IMF, to pay off debts. This decision was made based on incorrect information and is considered controversial. In addition, the question arises as to what happened to some of the inventory that the NFRA did not sell. Influential figures who knew of the coming food shortage are accused of purchasing this grain and not bringing it to market. This created an artificial shortage that stimulated the crisis.

To make up for the crop shortage, the government of Malawi has announced that it will purchase a large quantity of maize from other countries. The government is unable to do this and the NFRA is tasked with regulating purchasing. Meanwhile, prices continued to rise and other countries affected by famine also turned to South Africa to import maize. Import bottlenecks arose and it was not possible to fill the grain shortage. Access to food became increasingly limited for poor Malawians and by the time donor partners decided to intervene it was too late to prevent an excessive increase in deaths.

Hunger in Malawi in 2002

After 2002, Malawi was again hit a number of times by food crises in which maize prices rose excessively. Maize production is an important indicator of food scarcity given that it is the country’s most important food crop. During the crop growing season in 2004 and 2005, Malawi suffered from drought and in February 2005 it turned out that the harvest would be lower than expected. Grain is sold from the stock and food is distributed in the areas where corn shortages are greatest. In March 2005 it appears that production is declining even further and corn stocks are not enough to fill the shortage. The government and donor partners decide to intervene and replenish grain supplies to prevent a 2002-like famine. However, as in 2002, private actors are not prepared to sell their stock at affordable prices and import bottlenecks are once again arising because other countries also want to import corn. It was only in March 2006 that corn prices slowly fell because the harvest was significantly higher than in previous years. Imported corn from the government is also slowly entering the country. There was no famine during this period because, unlike in 2002, various organizations had now been set up to try to map out food security.

In the period from 2007 to 2009, corn prices rose again. This time climatic conditions are not the cause, but the cause must be sought within the political playing field. In January 2007, the government lifted the corn export ban that had been in force since 2005. The prediction of a good harvest causes a sharp drop in the price of the crop. In May 2007, a contract was signed with Zimbabwe to export 400,000 tons of maize. However, on the domestic market, the price of corn is starting to rise again. The 2008 harvest turned out to be lower than forecast and the export ban was reintroduced in April of that year. In August 2008, private traders are no longer allowed to sell their corn on the market. The government is introducing this ban to put pressure on traders to release their stocks. In February 2009, the corn price increase reaches its peak before prices fall again. Just as in the period from 2004 to 2006, no famine will occur. This has to do with the continuous expansion of social protection, which protects the population against famine.

Hunger remains a structural problem

Although more and more work is being done on food security in Malawi, another food crisis arose in 2015, this time leading to a famine. The weather phenomenon El NiƱo causes extreme drought. It is the driest rainy season in 35 years. This leads to a decline in food production. The maize price is exceptionally high and the government of Malawi has declared a state of emergency. Other countries from which extra food could normally be imported are also in trouble this time. That is why the government of Malawi is considering entering the global market. However, it will take four to six months for this food to arrive in Malawi. So once again we have to deal with import bottlenecks.

In addition, there is again a slow response from foreign donor partners. This has to do with the fact that the food crisis in Africa has to compete with the unrest in the Middle East and the refugee crisis. The dependence on donor partners seems problematic in this case. In 2020, millions of Malawians are still insecure about food availability. Drought remains a major problem, but other climatic conditions are also problematic. In 2019, the country was hit by a cyclone that led to flooding, resulting in the loss of 20 percent of corn production.

Education and improvement of food security

Little financial capital and dependence on agriculture and natural resources makes Malawi’s rural economy vulnerable. To make the country less vulnerable, a large part of the solution lies in changing the prevailing agriculture. Another education system aimed at reforming the food system plays an important role in this. Agricultural education is therefore an aspect that can contribute to increasing food security in Malawi in the long term. Although the education system in Malawi faces some obstacles, the government believes that education is the catalyst for the development of the economy. Awareness must be created among the students of the dependence of the country’s economy on agriculture. In addition to understanding the role that agriculture plays in the country’s economy, the student must also develop awareness of environmental degradation and the dangers it poses.

In order to provide education to as many students as possible, a number of changes have been implemented since the democratization of the country. The school year lasted from January to November so that students could combine their daily activities such as work in the fields with education. This measure was taken to avoid high absenteeism and to prevent dropouts. However, since 2009, the school year has started again in September. One of the reasons is that parents can cover school costs by selling agricultural products. On September 1, 2014, the Secondary School will be added to the education system, which is comparable to secondary school in the Netherlands. In these ways, Malawi seeks to emphasize and improve the link between education and food security. However, according to teachers in Malawi, this system can still be improved. Adjustments to policy within education are not always implemented properly and more emphasis can be placed on how knowledge can be applied in practice. In addition, the subject on agriculture was not mandatory when introduced in 2014, which is still a major point of criticism among teachers in 2020.

Dealing with climatic conditions

In addition to improving the education system, Malawi must also improve its handling of (changing) climatic conditions to reduce vulnerability. By becoming less dependent on one crop and learning to deal with climatic conditions, this could eventually make Malawi less dependent on donor partners, which has caused problems in every famine so far. An important part of this is that people in rural areas must become aware of the fact that climate change is taking place. This is not only important in rural areas, awareness of climate change must also be created at a national level. All actors within the seed system must therefore be aware that maize must be produced that is resistant to changes in weather conditions, such as drought. However, for the business world, companies that will have to produce the seeds, the priority for such modernization is not very high. Once again, the difference between the business and public sectors is noticeable. Corporate dominance could mean that the goals regarding climate adaptation set by the public sector cannot be effectively achieved. In 2020, there is still a long way to go to solve the structural problem of hunger in Malawi.

Leave a Comment