Early lean season in Malawi leaves 5 million hungry

Published on 30 September 2005

With large numbers of people in Malawi confronted by sharp rises in malnutrition rates and maize prices – three months earlier than the traditional lean season – WFP has given a warning that at least five million people may require international assistance.

At WFP food distribution points in southern Malawi, hundreds of hungry people not registered for food assistance are turning up trying to get rations.

Many report that they are only eating one meal or less per day and that they are resorting to eating water lily bulbs, a food that has little nutritional value and can be highly dangerous to harvest because of crocodiles.

Malnourished children

Data compiled by Malawi’s Health Ministry show that more than 1,000 acutely malnourished children were admitted to hospitals across the country in August, compared to 775 children in the same month last year.

In 76 nutrition rehabilitation units in the northern, central and southern regions, the number of admissions rose 15 percent, 41 percent, and 24 percent respectively in August this year compared with last August.

Many health practitioners are increasingly concerned that the numbers will surge as the lean season approaches.

Worsening situation

It’s critical that donors redouble their efforts to ensure no one starves, especially children

Mike Sackett, WFP Regional Director for Southern Africa

WFP was originally planning to feed about two million of the most vulnerable people in seven districts in southern Malawi until April next year while the Government and other organisations had committed themselves to feeding an additional 2.2 million people elsewhere in the country during the hunger period.

However due to a rapidly worsening situation, WFP is now planning to feed up to 2.9 million people in the southern districts.

This number should be validated by a revised food assessment and a nutritional screening in October.

Rocketing prices

Food prices usually rise from December up to the March/April harvest – when maize is scarcest and often unaffordable on the market and people have consumed their own reserves.

But prices have not only rocketed to levels not normally seen until the height of the lean season (in January/February) - there is also less maize available.

Help to survive

“For six months WFP, together with other aid agencies, has been warning of an imminent food crisis in Malawi and the rest of southern Africa; rising maize prices and malnutrition rates now mean that more people than before will need help to survive the lean season,” said Mike Sackett, WFP Regional Director for Southern Africa.

“Before this turn of events we already had a massive shortage of funds, so it’s critical that donors redouble their efforts to ensure no one starves, especially children.”

12 million people

Earlier this week, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said that about 12 million people would need food assistance in southern Africa until the next harvest – up from an earlier estimate of about 10 million.

In the region, WFP had planned to provide food aid to at least 8.5 million people by the start of the lean season in December, but will now be striving to reach up to 9.4 million of the region’s most vulnerable people by January.

Funding shortfall

Cash and food donations must be given now if we are to reach the neediest in time. It will be too late once emaciated images appear on television screens

Mike Sackett, WFP Regional Director for Southern Africa

Even before the increased needs for Malawi, WFP was facing a critical funding shortfall of US$152 million for programmes in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

So far, the single biggest donor to WFP’s operations in Malawi has been the Government of Malawi, which received significant support from Britain and the European Commission.

Prolonged dry spells

The situation is particularly acute in Malawi where this year’s maize production was the lowest since 1994 due to prolonged dry spells and shortages of seeds and fertiliser during the critical planting season.

The number of those needing food aid in the south alone now almost equals the total number of people WFP fed nationally at the height of the food crisis in 2002.

70 percent rise

According to Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture this week, maize prices in several districts of southern Malawi have already risen to over 30 kwacha ($0.22) per kilo and many other districts are now selling maize at over 25 kwacha ($0.18) per kilo – a 70 percent maize price increase at the community level.

This is well beyond the means of the poorest people.


In addition to rising maize prices and malnutrition rates, the agricultural sector across all of southern Africa has been hit hard by HIV/AIDS, with many people either too weak to plant food or required to spend their meagre assets on funerals or medicines.

Southern Africa has nine of the ten highest adult prevalence rates in the world and HIV/AIDS is one of the leading contributors to food insecurity in the region.

Window of opportunity

“Our window of opportunity to help Malawi and the rest of the region is closing fast,” Sackett said.

“It can take up to four months to get food to those who need it, so cash and food donations must be given now if we are to reach the neediest in time. It will be too late once emaciated images appear on television screens.”