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Malawi abandons tobacco for crop diversification, food security

At a farm estate in Zomba District, Malawi, chickpeas now dry in the sun where previously space was only made for tobacco. Photo by Travis Lupick.

By Travis Lupick

This past season, Henry Tambula saw his farm narrowly avoid financial ruin.

“I’ve grown tobacco for 25 years,” he said on the property he manages in Zomba District, Malawi, “and what happened this year has never happened in Malawi – it has forced us not to grow tobacco this season so we have stopped. We will never go back to tobacco.” 

Strong words for a farm manager in a country that once relied on “green gold”, as is it commonly known in Malawi, for as much as 70 per cent of its exports and 15 per cent of its GDP. But Tambula is in good company for renouncing the crop.

For 2011, Malawi’s tobacco earnings are down 57 per cent from what they were the previous year. After five consecutive seasons of declining returns on tobacco, a combination of the global recession, oversaturated markets, and increasingly-popular anti-tobacco campaigns is forcing Malawian farmers to look to other crops.

According to Prince Kapondamgaga, executive director for the Farmers Union of Malawi, this is not bad news. “Diversification is long overdue,” he said.

A group of Canadians working in Malawi agrees.

Canadian Physicians for Aid Relief’s Putting Farmers First program has long supported food security in Sub-Saharan Africa. In an email sent from Toronto, Kevin O’Niell, a program officer with the group, wrote that CPAR builds on the strengths of small-scale farming communities by promoting conservation agriculture principles such as crop diversification. 

“Crop diversification is one of a series of sustainable farming techniques at the core of CPAR's approach that improve crop production and expand opportunities for farmers to lead competitive agricultural production efforts,” he explained. “By moving away from mono-cropping (planting only one staple crop such as maize), small-scale farmers lessen their dependency on the success of that crop.” 

What’s more, he continued, this strategy also helps to improve the nutritional content of household diets. As arable land previously used to grow maize and tobacco –the two most-common crops in Malawi– is cleared of those plants, more room is made available for healthier fruits and vegetables.

O’Niell maintained that for CPAR, these issues are very much a matter of human rights. 

“People's right to food is driven by the notion that food should be accessible to all (sustained year-round access to a stable supply of food), available to all (a sufficient supply), adequate for all (nutritionally adequate and from a sustainable food system), and acceptable to all (culturally appropriate and respectful of traditions),” he wrote.

“Our work with small-scale farmers is based around these principles.”

A success story posted on CPAR’s website highlights how crop diversification is a means to achieving those goals.

It recounts how Harold, the head of a family of 10 living in the Lilongwe District, learned to diversify his crops in order to bolster food security.

“This training was an eye opener to me,” Harold is quoted as saying. “Through this training we learned the importance of growing different crops like cassava, sweet potato, vegetables and others throughout the year rather than just relying on rain fed maize production.”

With climate change altering rainfall patters, such stories are increasingly important to sustainable agriculture, CPAR maintains.

“In the face of dwindling natural resources and an ever-increasing demand for food due to high populations, crop diversification remains key to achieving food security,” it states on its website.

Back in Zomba District, Tambula toured his farm and pointed out more than a dozen different fruits and vegetables for which his fields have been prepared. But he noted that the transition will not be so easy for others in Malawi.

A reliance on mono-cropping holds the most risk for small-holder farmers, which, in Malawi’s case, account for 80 per cent of agricultural production in the country.

The company that Tambula works for, Mulli Brothers Limited, is large enough to recoup the money it lost on tobacco last year. “But the poor people in the village, the farmers there who grew tobacco, they bought fertilizers and also employed people to help them. And they are not going to be able to recover their money,” Tambula said. “Those people are even worse off. It is terrible. A disaster.”

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