Malawi’s Subsidized Miracle: The Green Revolution in Africa

By Connor Brassil

Today, it would be difficult to find somebody that did not recognize major issues in food security around the world. From images on the television asking for donations to a 2012 drought that caused a famine affecting over millions of people in the Sahel, it is clear that starvation and malnutrition continue to affect huge numbers of people, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The nation of Malawi, in southeast Africa, is just one of the countless nations that have faced food shortages and difficulties with adopting the Green Revolution to increase its food security. Since 2005, however, Malawi has successfully used various policies and initiatives that curbed food shortages to the extent that the nation now has food surpluses that are exported to neighboring countries (Denning).

Though Malawi originally fell victim to the same failures that continue to plague sub-Saharan Africa, the short term success of recent initiatives provides some hope for other struggling nations. While Asia and Latin America dramatically increased food production in the latter half of the 20th century due to the Green Revolution, sub-Saharan Africa saw no such success. Why, then, did the Green Revolution have limited success in Africa, and what consequences has this had on the continent? This question will be coupled with a case study of Malawi, analyzing their recent agricultural success, its consequences, and considering if the nation’s method of increasing agriculture output is sustainable and repeatable elsewhere.

Overview of Sub-Saharan Africa: Agriculture, Economy, and Population Growth

The relatively low agriculture yield in sub-Saharan Africa can be attributed to a large variety of factors, one of the most obvious being climate. The climatic factors that affect the region’s agriculture are diverse, often unpredictable, and difficult to combat. The Sahel, the zone of transition of biomes between the Sahara and sub-Saharan Africa, is extremely vulnerable to soil depletion due to desertification along with other parts of Africa, including the East African grasslands and the Kalahari of southern Africa (Geist 818). While part of desertification is partially natural, agricultural production plays a large role in sub-Saharan Africa’s current crisis; improper expansion of farming in some regions has triggered soil degradation (Geist 820). While desertification is a long-term issue that affects agriculture in the region, on the other end unpredictable droughts and flooding cause occasional crop failures that can devastate a region for years at a time (Denning). Despite the obstacles created by Africa’s climate, the Green Revolution saw the creation of various genetically modified crops with resistances to hurdles such as drought, poor soil, and so forth, so there have to be reasons why the adoption of these crops has found limited success.  This failure can be attributed to physical limitations and shortcomings as well as market and government failures.

Some of the physical limitations on agricultural success in Africa have already been mentioned, such as soil quality. Even hardier genetically modified strains of maize are harder to grow in poor soil. More directly, water shortages in the region make large scale agriculture difficult; whereas 20% of India’s cropland is properly irrigated, only a mere 3-5% of sub-Saharan Africa is (Asiema). Furthermore, the varied environment of Africa is home to countless pests and diseases that greatly detriment crop production. Though these problems can be avoided through traditional farming methods, “the use of a narrow genetic base variety and practise of monoculture, all characteristics of the Green Revolution, increases the risks of large areas of crops being devastated by pests, diseases and crop failure,” making many people reluctant to adopt genetically modified strains of crops (Asiema). All of these factors make Green Revolution-styled farming unappealing for rural farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, playing into the limited success of the “revolution” in the region.

Physical limitations aside, Africa is also a difficult region to develop given its economic shortcomings and failures of government. On an individual level, farmers often cannot afford the fertilizers and pesticides that made the Green Revolution possible elsewhere. While the average use of fertilizer in low to middle economies in the early 1990’s was 86,000 grams of plant nutrient per hectare of farmland, the average in sub-Saharan Africa was a mere 9,000 grams per hectare, making the region the lowest consumer of fertilizer in the world (Morgan 63). Given the large investments required to purchase fertilizer along with a lack of organic inputs (cow manure, for example) required to keep land healthy, the use of inorganic fertilizer is very risky for most farmers in sub-Saharan Africa (Glover). Thus, the economic limitations of poor farmers greatly contributed to the apparent failure of the Green Revolution in Africa.

The weak economies of this region have helped to create weak nations and governments. This weakness is visible in the poor infrastructure of sub-Saharan Africa, which harms agriculture. For example, lack of readily available electricity in Kenya has resulted in “a reduced investment… in cold storage facilities, irrigation, and processing of farm produce,” impeding the productivity of all rural farms in the nation (Salami 28).  Without proper roads, African farmers are also at a disadvantage when trying to distribute their crops or import commodities such as fertilizer, which is another major obstacle for the implementation of Green Revolution crops, soil additives, and so on. Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, even recognized that the success of the agriculture process he helped create rested in making sure that fertilizer could reach farmers and their goods could reach markets (Asiema). Thus, the Green Revolution is harder to “spread” in some ways in sub-Saharan Africa because of limitations of infrastructure.

The Importance of Increasing Crop Yield in Sub-Saharan Africa

It should be noted that the reasons behind the region’s difficulties in adopting the Green Revolution are very expansive and difficult to assess, and are not limited to the factors listed above. Regardless of how or why it happened, the importance of expanding agricultural output in sub-Saharan Africa must be noted. Scholar Anthony Young has noted that “thus far, population increase has been accompanied by agricultural intensification, supported by the major advances in research of the green revolution,” noting that the rapidly expanding population of the 20th century had been fed because of the leaps and bounds covered by new technologies and agricultural processes (86). However, in 2005 this trend was not true in 12 countries, 10 of which are African, where population growth was not joined by a corresponding growth in agriculture productivity, creating a “net trend towards rural hunger and poverty” (Young 86). The population increases India, Southeast Asia, and Latin America had in the 20th century were fueled, in part, by increased crop yield from Green Revolution technologies, thus sub-Saharan Africa will have difficulties feeding its growing population without the same technological advances.

Going a step further, scientists such as Pay Dreschel and his colleagues have noted that these trends in sub-Saharan Africa can potentially devastate the region. Dreschel notes that rural population densities accompanied with nutrient depletion in soil form a “downward spiral” and create a poverty trap in the region (414). His conclusions from this are that, given crop yield does not increase and the trend stays true, sub-Saharan Africa will remain reliant on crop imports even though the region’s economy is highly based on agriculture, which will significant slow economic growth in the region (Dreschel 420). The title of Dreschel and his colleagues’ paper, alluding to a “Malthusian Nexus,” is particularly telling; the theories of Thomas Malthus, who predicted that human population growth would eventually be curbed by disease or famine, is being tested in Africa today.

So what hope exists for sub-Saharan Africa? The varied issues listed above, along with countless other obstacles, prevent the Green Revolution from easily prospering in the region, especially in nations with weak economies. However, some nations have been able to successfully implement features of the Green Revolution through a variety of methods; Malawi is one of these nations. The approach Malawi took to achieve recent surpluses in maize yield will be analyzed in the following pages to see if such a method is applicable in other sub-Saharan nations, or even sustainable in Malawi itself.

Malawi’s Tentative Solution

The land-locked nation of Malawi, located in southeast Africa next to Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique, was not an anomaly of any sorts in the sub-Saharan geopolitical situation for the entire 20th century. The 1990s saw an increased rate of population growth after many years of this rate declining, increasing from an all-time low of .41% growth in 1993 to a much higher rate of 2.88% in 1999 (Malawi – Population growth), making this time period in Malawi of interest to analysts, particularly with the nation’s shaky economy. Indeed, in the 1995 agriculture was 40% of the nation’s GDP and provided over 90% of the nation’s employment (Sahn 219) highlighting the extreme importance of agriculture to the small nation. The main crop in Malawi has been maize, of which Malawi is amongst the highest consumers of in the world. This is highlighted in its prevalence across the nation, where maize grew in over 75% of all cultivated areas in 1995 (Smale 352). Population growth and agriculture accounted for, 1990s Malawi acted as an “experiment” of sorts for scientists and analysts looking at agriculture and population growth in sub-Saharan Africa.

The population growth Malawi saw in the mid-to-late 1990’s came after over a decade of a slowing population growth, and the largely maize based economy was not able to handle it. Economists David E. Sahn and Jehan Arulpragasam recognized this, saying “yields of both export crops and maize have stagnated and there has not been any intensification of production in excess of population growth” (226). This is where Malthusian principals as described above come into play; growth in population not accompanied with growth in agricultural productivity must result in either hunger or increased imports of crops, straining the small subsistence-based economy of Malawi.

Malawian farmers attempted to increase maize output to feed the growing population, but with little success. Their largely traditional methods of agriculture were highly detrimental to the nutrition of the soil and without the tools necessary to properly raise genetically modified seeds the only way to increase output was to expand the cultivation area, thus adding to soil depletion in the nation (Smale 352).  With little arable land available for expansion of cultivation, Malawi’s only route for economic growth is high-yield agriculture; high crop output within limited space. The genetically modified seeds were there, but the other soil inputs that made high yields available elsewhere in the world were not, leading to the conclusion that “the land-saving technological change that is necessary to sustain a growing population can only be achieved through adoption of seed/fertilizer technology” (Smale 352). Thus, even in the 1990s many were aware that fertilizer and other Green Revolution technologies were the key to Malawi’s success, though economic constraints made the acquisition and implementation of such materials difficult.

Attempts were made to diffuse fertilize and hybrid seed technology across Malawi in the 1990s as well. Though on the right track, and foreshadowing later government policies, a subsidy on fertilizer was enacted in response to raising fertilizer prices in the global market (Sahn 221-2). Though successful in increasing fertilizer consumption, larger farmers with better credit disproportionally used fertilizer, so much so that while consumption of fertilizer only increased by 6kg on farms holding less than 1 hectare of land, farms holding more than 3 hectares of land increased their use of fertilizer by 145 kg, despite the fact that 1 hectare or less farms composed 55% of all Malawian farms (Sahn 222-3). Thus, larger, richer farms consumed far more fertilizer and benefited disproportionately from this subsidy program, harming smaller farmers. The issue of wealth and adoption of the Green Revolution is not unique to Malawi; Janelle Germanos discusses this in her paper, under “Inequalities: Farm Size”. Coupled with inadequate rules of rationing that may have actually acted as an obstacle to fertilizer consumption, Malawi’s initiatives at promoting agricultural productivity failed (Sahn 232). The population increase in the 1990s was not accompanied by the necessary increase of productivity, despite government initiatives, leading Malawi on the road to a “Malthusian Nexus.”

It is important to note that the economy of Malawi today is largely similar to that of the 1990s, showing that the government initiatives and statistics two decades ago are still applicable today. For example, where as 90% of Malawi’s labor force worked in agriculture in 1995, which also made up 40% of the nation’s GDP, today 85% of the nation’s workers are in agriculture, making up 39% of Malawi’s GDP (Droppelman 7). It is apparent, then, that the economy of Malawi has not changed fundamentally over the past two decades, with the success of agriculture still a huge priority and necessary to the economic growth of the nation. What has changed, however, are the government initiatives to promote agriculture productivity, which have seen success since they started in 2006.

After the decade of agricultural stagnation that was the 1990s, Malawi had made little to no improvements to its economy by the start of the 21st century. When drought struck in 2005 causing a national food deficit of 43% in Malawi, meaning that the nation had to import at least that much food from elsewhere, “the Government of Malawi implemented one of the most ambitious and successful assaults on hunger in the history of the African continent” (Denning). Along with adequate rainfall in the following years, crop yields in 2006 and 2007 were increased dramatically through an inclusive fertilizer subsidy program that the Malawian government implemented to improve both agricultural productivity and increase profits for rural farmers (Ricker-Gilbert 3). Contrasting the failed fertilizer subsidy program of the previous decade, the newly implemented subsidies were designed to 60% of the smaller 1 hectare or less farms of Malawi, instead of the larger 3 hectare farms that the previous subsidy program benefitted. Paid for by the Malawian government, and in small part through the United Kingdom, Malawi’s new subsidy program rationed vouchers to rural farmers across the nation that allowed the purchase of a predetermined amount of fertilizer at 25% of its commercial price (Ricker Gilbert 3). It is clear that Malawi’s program was mostly operated and funded domestically, thus further decreasing Malawi’s reliance on foreign support, a danger that nations like Cuba have faced in adopting the Green Revolution, a case covered in Frank Muraca’s Markets, Farms, and Communism below. The program was apparently an immediate success, and saw the food deficit of 43% in 2005 turn into a food surplus of 53% by 2007, which was then exported (Denning). Though strong rains allowed this in part, this apparent success led the Malawian government to scale up its subsidy program dramatically in following years.

Through the continued use of this ambitious subsidy program, Malawi has retained food security and has become a maize exporter instead of relying on food aid. Though initiated less than a decade ago, the results of the subsidy program have been varied and widespread. To begin, with the basic social stability created from attaining food security, the subsidy program has indirectly helped to bring better health and education to rural areas of the nation (Denning). More directly, the smallholder farms that were once ignored through government initiatives have been greatly assisted through these all-inclusive subsidies, bringing more profit to small rural farmers. More importantly, if the subsidy program proves to be sustainable, at least in the short-term, Malawi can begin to transition from a low income economy to a middle income economy over the next few decades (Denning). The question is, is this program sustainable?

According to Columbia professor Glenn Denning and his colleagues, Malawi’s subsidizing of inputs, like fertilizer, is a more cost effective method of attaining food security than through an outside subsidy, like food aid. Essentially, through just US$60 of subsidized inputs US$140 to US$210 could be gained through sails of extra food, locally. Furthermore, to generate surpluses that were exported to Zimbabwe for approximately US$120 the subsidy’s budget only cost approximately US$5 per Malawian citizen, as opposed to the cost of importing food at US$8 per person (Denning). In the past few years, then, it is clear that Malawi’s subsidies have been a more effective allocation of funds than importation or food aid. However, the success of the program relies on the price of goods such as maize, which could devalue given higher agricultural productivity, as well as commercial price of fertilizer and even uncontrollable factors such as rainfall and the tolerance of the soil towards the subsidized fertilizer.

It is also of note that because the subsidy program was an emergency response of sorts to the food deficit the country faced in 2005, monocropping of a quick and calorie-intensive crop such as maize has been supported. While this has created food surpluses in the short-term, it has not created any economic diversification that is necessary to supporting Malawi’s economic growth, thus leading the struggling nation to over-rely on maize (Droppelmann 16). A labor analysis prepared for the government of Malawi by economists Dick Durevall and Dr. Richard Mussa also found that economic diversification was needed for the continued prosperity of Malawi, “government expenditures on subsidies should not crowd out other high-return projects such as building roads, power plants, etc.” (xii). Furthermore, Durevall and Mussa also discussed the need for subsidies to provide for the very poorest of farmers, which was the main failure of the 1990s subsidies (94). Crowding out and Fertilizer Subsidies in Malawi shared this view, declaring proper allocation of subsides as a main failure of the current subsidy, as providing the poorest farmers with higher profits is critical to Malawi’s economic growth strategy (Ricker-Gilber 15). Thus, many reports indicate that the fertilizer subsidies are sustainable only with proper guidance and design, and while they have benefitted Malawi in the short-term, revisions will be necessary in the future.

Malawi as a Role Model for Africa

Should Malawi’s agriculture policy be mirrored across sub-Saharan Africa? Even in 1994 University of Nairobi professor Joy Asiema recognized making the Green Revolution successful in sub-Saharan Africa relied on efficient programs that increased agricultural production enough to offset food deficits, thereby eliminating Africa’s dependence on international imports and raising food security in the region. Despite the variety of factors that have played into the Green Revolution’s relative failure in sub-Saharan Africa, the consumption of fertilizer is a clear difference between sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions of the world, as Africa has been constrained by financial limitations. The disparity of fertilizer use is very dramatic; at the beginning of the 21st century as southern Asia consumed an average of 101kg of fertilizer for every hectare of farmland, Africa only used an average of 8kg/ha (Denning).

Thus, while other factors certainly come into play, increasing fertilizer inputs in sub-Saharan Africa may pave the way for economic growth in the region. In the past few years, Malawi’s fertilizer voucher and subsidy program has increased fertilizer consumption dramatically as well as maize yield, which was also assisted by years of good rainfall.  In the short-term, this has given the nation considerable food security and could be the basis of economic growth in the low-income nation. However, questions have been raised as far as the program’s sustainability, as outlined above. In the long run, the success of Malawi’s subsidies will rely on what the nation does to promote economic growth, instead of just hoping for high crop yields. It is clear that subsidies should be targeted at the very poorest of farmers and should ultimately act as an investment; though the high crop yields have been more cost effective than food importation/aid, they still cost the nation money. For example, a sharp increase in fertilizer prices from 2007 to 2008 caused a program deficit of over US$80 million in Malawi, but ultimately the nation still saved money despite this deficit as importing food would have been costlier (Denning). In the short-term, then, it is clear the subsidy program’s benefits have outweighed its faults. In the long-run, however, Malawi will need to invest in real economic opportunities.

As far as other sub-Saharan countries, then, those that rely on food aid could learn from Malawi’s program. Given that the nation’s fertilizer subsidy program is still young, and the major factors it relies on (rainfall, fertilizer prices, crop selling price, etc.), a considerable amount of caution must be taken when trying to mirror Malawi’s model. Despite this, it is clear that Malawi has found success bringing the Green revolution to its farmers thus far, and even when running budget deficits the domestic crop yield has proven to be more cost effective than relying on international imports. Therefore, Malawi’s agricultural and economic growth model could pave the way to food security in the sub-Saharan Africa.

Bringing the Green Revolution to sub-Saharan Africa will not simply improve the food security of the nation, but also help to transform the low-income nation of rural farmers into a stronger, middle-income, diverse economy that will attract international investment (Denning). The “modest economic growth” Malawi experiences in the past decade may also be a stepping stone towards urbanization in the nation, as nations like India did after the Green Revolution, which may help to incentivize public investments for a denser population. The government endeavors necessary to make Malawi’s fertilizer subsidy work in the future may also help to create a civil, democratic society, as subsidies must affect a broad range of citizens (Droppelmann 20). The subsidy will not just create food, it will create a society.

In conclusion, though sub-Saharan Africa has struggled at adopting the technologies and policies that increased agriculture yield dramatically in the 20th century elsewhere in the world, today the endeavors of nations like Malawi may help to bring the “Green Revolution” to the region. While financial limitations of the small sub-Saharan nations has held back economic development in the area, Malawi’s fertilizer subsidy program has proven to be an investment that has removed any food deficits of the nation and, quite often, replaced them with food surpluses that can be exported to neighboring countries such as Zimbabwe. Though it is still early, Malawi’s fertilizer subsidy program may stimulate the agriculture-based economy into true development, given proper implementation and reevaluation over time. Food security means much more than having food on the table or extra money in the pocket; growing enough food to feed a growing nation is not only necessary for the survival of the population, but for bettering their life quality and transforming the poor rural nation into a more diverse economy.

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