Nelly Bassily | October 19, 2009
Montfort Salijeni peels a wild tuber. He found the potato-like tuber in the bush near his home in southern Malawi. The farmer has no choice but to harvest wild vegetables. As a nation, Malawi is enjoying a maize surplus. But the bush is the only source of food for Mr. Salijeni’s family.
Mr. Salijeni and his wife, Ida Salijeni, grow cotton. In a normal year, the Salijenis sell their cotton to purchase maize and other necessities. But this year, most cotton farmers have not sold a single kilogram.
The problem lies in a disagreement between the government and cotton buyers. This year, the Malawian government set the minimum price for cotton at 54 cents per kilo. The government said cotton farmers deserve a good return for their labour. But buyers say the global demand for cotton is down. They only want to pay 30 cents per kilo.
Major buyers have established offices in Malawi to purchase cotton. But these buyers have withdrawn from Malawi’s cotton-producing areas. This includes Chingale, the community where the Salijenis live.
Davidson Mbayisa is another cotton farmer in Chingale. He belongs to a club of small-scale cotton growers. He explains that the farming club has benefitted from Malawi’s fertilizer subsidy program. They produced a good cotton harvest earlier this year. But their cotton is still in storage.
Mr. Mbayisa says that cotton farmers are stranded. They do not have the means to transport cotton to buyers. They are also afraid. If the first rains come next month, their cotton crop will rot, and all their efforts will have been in vain. Mr. Mbayisa worries that some people in his region will starve to death.
The rainy season is often a difficult time in Chingale. Cotton farmers normally prepare by stocking up on maize. Ida Salijeni wishes she could do this again this year. She wishes buyers would come and buy her cotton at any price. But for now, Malawi’s maize surplus is out of her family’s reach.