In Malawi, politicians differ on countless grounds except for one thing—an agricultural subsidy that has all but failed to save the poor from chronic hunger.
Every growing season, the public outcry for affordable fertiliser and seed easily pushes authorities to deliver the farm inputs before the first raindrops, albeit with stuttering results.
However, a voice is rising in the flood-prone Shire Valley that the Affordable Inputs Programme (AIP) represents a one-size-fits-all solution that seldom fixes their dilemma.
The farmers, who constantly lose the first crop to flooding, say the time has come for the government to adjust the highly political subsidy to their advantage.
The disaster worsened by climate change keeps wiping out the desired benefits from AIP, which was designed to improve the yield and food security of needy farmers.
Strangely, all farmers get fertiliser and seed for a rain-fed crop even though others plant twice or thrice.
This top-down policy has tended to benefit only subsistent farmers who depend on rain-feddependent agriculture and excludes those who have embraced winter cropping as do many farmers in the Lower Shire.
The dilemma for growers in the sprawling floodplain is that they rarely plant with the first rains which herald devastating floods that flatten their fields, washing maturing crops away as did Cyclone Freddy in March 2023.
Instead, they wait for the moisture and fertile alluvial soils brought by the floods.
To turn their misfortune into a blessing, they ask the government to provide affordable farm inputs for winter cropping.
“We rely more on winter cropping than rain-fed crops,” says Gerald Kenti, 48. “Getting affordable inputs during the rainy season does not make much sense to us. It puts us in a fix.”
The farmer from Phali Village, Traditional Authority (TA) Makhuwira in Chikwawa District, is among 900 farmers who grow maize and different crops in Chilengo Irrigation Scheme.
The community depends on winter cropping as the rainy season is often marked by devastating floods and drought.
“Here, even a 10-year-old child will tell you that Chikwawa and Nsanje face floods every rainy season,” he says.
He wishes the government reviewed the national strategy of providing affordable inputs during the rainy season.
He states: “Every year, we ask ourselves: Do they think of our situation? Do they want us to benefit from this programme or it’s just a political gimmick?
“When floods strike, we lose all those inputs and we struggle to recover.”
The abundance of water and farmland makes the floodplain ideal for winter cropping.
Kenti urges the Ministry of Agriculture to come up with targeted solutions that will allow farmers in different climatic zones to reap the desired benefits of AIP.
“Consider us differently because our situation is different from those in the North, Centre and other parts of the Southern Region,” he says.
He wishes Shire Valley residents accessed subsidised farm inputs from April to use them profitably.
Concurring, Noriah Edison, 51, says this has been their request for decades, “but it seems officials do not care”.
The farmer from Alusi Village in the same area on the eastern bank of the Shire River says she has never benefited from the multi-billion kwacha subsidy.
“Following Cyclone Freddy last rainy season, I harvested just five bags of maize from a field where I expected 15. Everything went with floods.”
During winter, Edson produced 12 bags from the same field.
“I got 12 bags due to a shortage of fertiliser,” she says. “All the fertiliser I applied during the rainy season was washed away by the cyclone, which damaged our crops.”
Such lamentations echo across the Limphangwi Irrigation Scheme in T/A Makhuwira, which benefits 218 farmers’ households.
Yokoniya John says with climate change, “farmers can no longer bank on tricky rains”.
“A plot that gave me just one bag during the rainy season produced eight in winter,” he says.
Shire Valley Agricultural Development Division programme manager Taurayi Mlewa says while AIP can continue to cater for farmers nationwide, there should be special assistance targeted for winter cropping.
He said: “Areas such as East Bank [of the Shire River in Chikwawa] tend to have two or more cropping seasons, so supporting them in all these seasons can give better results.
The design of the targeted initiative can be different, but the results will be the same.”
According to Mlewa, winter cropping requires fertiliser as well as improved seed of cereals, legumes and fruits.
He also said the farmers need training and extension support with intensive follow-ups to maximise yield.
“There is also a need to invest in solar irrigation systems and potable solar pumps and treadle pumps for increased water supply since some rivers dry up,” he says.
Despite the unmistakable popularity and benefits of irrigation farming in the Shire Valley, most existing schemes need urgent repairs following a battering from floods.
Kenti says Cyclone Freddy damaged the intake of his scheme with no repairs in sight.
“Maize harvest keeps dwindling because we are not getting enough water in our plots,” he laments.
Secretary for Agriculture Dickxie Kampani says efforts are underway to rehabilitate the damaged scheme using resources from the government and donors.
On calls for departures from the one-size-fits-all AIP, Kampani said: “Irrigation is extensive in the Lower Shire and the government continues to support farmers.
“Supporting winter crops and diversifying inputs is part of the AIP reforms.” n
NEXT: The rise and fall of Irrigation farming amid a worsening climate crisis. What lies ahead?