Q: Coming from the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development, what challenges did you find that need fixing in the new Ministry?
A: The Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, and Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development may be similar in that they all to a greater extent have to deal with issues to do with the grassroots.
From that perspective, I am privileged to have come with the experience of dealing with the issues that are critical at a local level such as land, infrastructure and even poverty.
However, the Ministry of Agriculture comes with its own profile of challenges, and let me first commend my predecessor; the former Minister Hon. Joseph Mwanamveka, MP, for doing such a tremendous job of putting the Ministry on a sure footing and laying a solid foundation from where we are sure we will build from.
Fraught with a myriad of challenges
My Ministry is fraught with a myriad of challenges among them low farm gate prices; presence of diseases such as banana bunchy top virus; and poor infrastructure including plant and equipment to support initiatives for improved agricultural productivity. We are also dealing with the low adoption levels of improved agricultural technologies due to inaccessibility, affordability, and high illiteracy among farming communities.
The agriculture sector has also not escaped the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which has robed the sector of more technical and productive professionals thereby retarding the vision and mission of the ministry. The gender imbalance and the marginalization of vulnerable groups is also a major challenge for the Ministry of Agriculture. All this calls for extra effort in terms of resources and focus, which is also another challenge on its own, but as a Ministry, we are on top of things and attuned to deal with these challenges.
Q: What is your take as a new Minister on the ongoing debate to stop or not stop the fertilizer subsidy program?
A: I am aware of the debate on whether to stop or continue the FISP program, and I always appreciate both sides of the argument. Obviously, those that are against the program argue from the cost side of things; they question the sustainability of the program in the long run, particularly in light of meager and competing resources.
It is a well-considered alternative worth exploring particularly in the long run, as we gradually graduate out of the current poverty trap. We should, however, be mindful of the fact that it is the vision of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Government and the able tutelage of President Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika to uplift as many Malawians out of the poverty basket as possible, and Government cannot do that without investing in pro-poor programs.
FISP program is a pro-poor program that aims at helping Malawians to attain food self-sufficiency, particularly at household level and I would naturally support that program.
The goal of FISP is to enhance food self-sufficiency by increasing smallholder farmers’ access to and use of improved agricultural inputs, thereby boosting the incomes of resource-poor farmers.
While the overall long term goal of the policy will be to encourage increases in quality fertilizers accessed through commercial channels, the Government of Malawi will continue to support farmers through the fertilizer subsidy program, and new innovative loan based fertilizer program that integrate the private sector in order to encourage development of the commercial fertilizer industry.
Q: Hunger still stalks Malawi, with a million people said to face hunger and high levels of malnutrition this year. Will Malawi be able to end hunger?
A: It is the goal of the DPP government under the empowering vision of President Mutharika to completely eradicate hunger in this country. We are, however, live to the reality that there are many factors that lead to the hunger situation and Malawi has been particularly vulnerable to acts of God such as floods and droughts in recent years.
Government conducts a survey to assess the food security and agriculture productivity status in this country every year to help its planning and policy making process. I am pleased to inform you that the food situation is better this year than in the previous one. The situation has drifted in the positive territory to 3,391, 924 metric tonnes in 2019 from 2, 697, 959 metric tonnes in the 2017/2018 season representing a 24 percent improvement.
I want to assure Malawians that government has a comprehensive plan to deal with hunger and improve the food security situation within the short, medium to long term, and I want to say that no soul will be lost as a result of the hunger situation in the country. Within the short term government plans to procure maize through ADMARC and the National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA) so that the staple food is available to the people throughout the year.
In the medium and long term, government is implementing various programs and projects, with emphasis on irrigation farming, to maximize food production. Some of the projects and programs put in place by the Government of Malawi to ensure that the country produces adequate food and commercializes agriculture include FISP, the Greenbelt Initiative, Program for Rural Irrigation Development (PRIDE), Sustainable Agriculture Productivity Program (SAPP), Shire Valley Transformation Project (SVTP), Smallholder Irrigation and Value Addition Project (SIVAP} and Smallholder Horticulture Empowerment and Promotion Project (MA-SHEP).
To implement these projects and programs, the Ministry relies on a network of Frontline Extension Workers (FEW) operating countrywide. These extension workers work in partnership with stakeholders in the agriculture sector from the public, civil society as well as the private sector.
So, with these and other deliberate interventions, I can assure you that hunger would soon be history in Malawi.
Q: Malawi needs international investors to invest in irrigation programs, and yet this investment song in this sector has been sung too long. Why are we not attracting enough investment in irrigation?
A: First, let me reiterate that irrigation farming is an integral part of our initiatives to increase food production in the country. We are hugely aware that in addition to increasing crop yields, irrigation helps reduce the risk of crop failure because of drought and prolonged dry spells and also presents opportunities for more than one growing season per year. Indeed, irrigation also assists in livestock production through provision of supplementary water for pasture production as well as drinking water for animals.
Malawi adopted the National Irrigation Policy (NIP, 2016) that aims at addressing critical issues affecting the irrigation sector. These include spatial and temporal water shortages; customary land tenure disputes; and poor operation and maintenance of infrastructure. The NIP attempts to provide solutions to these challenges by addressing three priority areas of sustainable irrigation development, management and capacity development. The policy acknowledges several opportunities that exist for accelerated irrigation development namely effects of climate change; public private partnerships (PPPs); improved governance reforms in water and land management; and increasing interests by stakeholders.
I believe that the Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) aspect provides a perfect fertile ground for both local and international investors to explore investment opportunities in the irrigation sector.
Malawi provides a safe and easy environment for investors in virtually all strategic sectors of the economy, including agriculture. The legal framework for investment in Malawi is exceptionally conducive for both local and international investors.
In fact, let me inform you that many local and international investors are aware of the vast opportunities that exist in the irrigation sector in Malawi. Many investors are already aware as we also conduct due diligence on various prospective international investors in the irrigation sector.
Finally, you may be aware that this Government established the Greenbelt Authority through an Act of Parliament. One of the core functions of the Authority is to promote Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) on irrigation programs and mobilize financial resources for the implementation of irrigation programs and projects.
So, I would not agree with you when suggest that “we are not attracting enough investment in irrigation.
Cotton had a lot of promise a few years ago, but farmers seem to have abandoned growing this crop due to depressing prices. What are you doing to promote cotton growing?
I wish to agree with you that cotton production has been fluctuating over the past 10 years and that lately, production has been disturbingly low.
For example, in 2014/15 season, a total of 123,019 hectares were used and total production was 79,289 metric tonnes. The figures drastically dwindled in 2016/17 when total production was only 29,545 from 41,097 hectares.
This trend is extremely worrying especially when you consider that apart from providing cash incomes to farmers and foreign exchange to Malawi, cotton seeds provide raw material for manufacturing of cooking oil and livestock feeds.
My immediate preoccupation as I settle down at this Ministry will be to meet all stakeholders in the cotton industry to explore some of the major challenges that are negatively affecting cotton production. I will ensure that with the involvement of experts in my Ministry, we create a conducive environment to ensure a substantial increase in cotton production, including ensuring that we take necessary steps to improve the quality of our cotton to meet local demand and export any surpluses.
Q: Your last word?
A: I would like to thank His Excellency State President Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika for yet again entrusting me with this enormous responsibility to preside over this critical ministry, especially considering the fact that our economy is essentially agro-based.
I will not claim to have the monopoly of wisdom, and I know there are people out there who are equally capable to do the job, even better than me. I will, therefore, continue to engage all stakeholders to the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development to make sure that we create an environment for sustainable solutions to the myriad challenges that we face as a ministry, and within the larger scheme of the whole economy.
In particular, I would like to be the catalyst to the creation of a motivating environment for our farmers; where they are able to see handsome rewards for their work; where they look forward to another new and profitable day. I believe together we can do it.
Finally, let me inform you that as Minister of Agriculture, the tobacco industry has a special place in my heart because tobacco is the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner and key to the growth of our economy. I believe the sustainability of tobacco will be assured only if farmers produce high quality tobacco. That is my overriding responsibility in as far as tobacco production is concerned.
I will also give special attention to other export crops such as tea and coffee to ensure that we also develop these sectors for the benefit of our people and the larger economy.
Similar special attention will be directed to livestock and poultry production.