Malawi: Women sun-dry maize to cope with hunger

May 23, 2016
A translation for this article is available in French

It’s a windy, chilly morning, and Rosina Magalasi wakes up early to prepare porridge for her husband and grandchild. She peeps into the maize flour basket and immediately realizes that her family will need more flour for lunch and supper. She abandons the idea of cooking porridge, picks up a panga knife, and rushes into the nearby field to harvest maize.

She will quickly shell, sun-dry, and mill the maize to ensure that her family can eat three meals that day.

Mrs. Magalasi and her family live in a one-bedroom house in Mlubwira village, about 45 kilometres northwest of Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. She says her greatest fear is that this year’s food shortage will be worse than last year.

She has already started shelling and drying this year’s harvest to feed her family, even though the maize is not fully ready for harvest and milling. Farmers in Malawi normally store maize for several months, during which time it dries more fully. But Mrs. Magalasi and other farmers are sun-drying and milling their maize so they can eat it sooner.

Mrs. Magalasi says her family has been struggling to grow maize, the country’s staple food, for a long time. She harvested little last year because of erratic rains and a dry spell that hit her area hard. She explains: “Food at my household ran out in September in 2015. The challenge is that my family relies on farming for our livelihood. With climate change effects, we have been harvesting less maize in recent years.”

Last year, Mrs. Magalasi harvested six bags of maize from her one-and-half acre field. She says, “This year is going to be difficult because my family anticipates to harvest less than five bags of maize because we started drying maize [to eat] in April this year.”

Lenia Mankhambila is another farmer from Mlubwira village who is sun-drying maize to make sure that her family can eat nsima—maize meal—every day. She says now, with everyone harvesting at once, she can buy a 50-kilogram bag of maize for $8 US. But the cost rises significantly outside of harvest time.

Jeni Maxwell also comes from Mlubwira village, and has not been spared the threat of hunger. She says: “I have no better option other than harvesting, shelling, and drying the available maize in my field. At least for now, my family can eat complete meals each day.  Between December last year and February this year, food was scarce and we used to skip meals because the price of maize skyrocketed.”

Mrs. Maxwell says that because of poor rains, other farmers in her village have very little to harvest. She says, “I can foresee that by August this year, my family and many others here will have run out of maize.”

This would leave her family without its staple food until the following May or June, when maize is once again ready to be harvested.

Mrs. Magalasi says her family used to go to sleep without food sometimes when their store of maize was critically low. She is afraid that they will face the same situation this year. She says: “The challenge is that my husband and I are very old, such that we cannot do other income-generating activities to help us buy maize. We rely on our daughter who is in South Africa for remittances, but she does not send us money regularly.”

Mrs. Magalasi is appealing to government and international organizations to help with food relief this year before the worst becomes a reality, and to avoid a repeat of last year’s experience. She says: “Government and relief agencies should plan in advance to assist people like me who always find it tough when hunger strikes. The fact that we have already started harvesting, shelling, and drying the little maize we now have in order to eat means we will have less maize to store, and hunger will not spare us.”