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The Failure of Input Subsidies and a New Path Forward to Fight Hunger in Malawi

January 23, 2020
By: Andy Currier
Flooded fields near the Shire and Linkhubula rivers in Malawi. The area is still recovering from the flooding after Cyclone Idai hit the country. Credit: GovernmentZA (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Flooded fields near the Shire and Linkhubula rivers in Malawi. The area is still recovering from the flooding after Cyclone Idai hit the country. Credit: GovernmentZA (CC BY-ND 2.0)


On October 15th 2019, Malawi’s Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Water Development, Kondwani Nankhuma kicked off the 14th year of the country’s Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP). The program, which distributes vouchers to farmers that subsidize the cost of fertilizer and “improved” seed varieties, has been the dominant response to persistent food insecurity in the country.

Just two weeks before FISP began the new season, the Famine Early Warning Network System announced parts of Southern Malawi will experience acute food insecurity at “Crisis” levels between October 2019 and March 2020. Food shortfalls were attributed to the massive floods that wreaked havoc for hundreds of thousands in March 2019. Climate change has without question arrived for millions of vulnerable farmers in Malawi.

After over a decade, has FISP been successful in addressing hunger in Malawi? In this new climate reality, will Malawian farmers be able to adapt using the “improved” seed and chemical fertilizer subsidized by FISP?

The Limitations of FISP

In terms of funding, FISP has dominated Malawi’s agriculture development strategy. At its peak in 2008/9, FISP received 74 percent of the Ministry of Agriculture budget and 16 percent of the entire Malawian government budget. While spending on the program has fallen, the program was still allocated over US$ 48.5 million (K 35.5 billion) –20 percent of the Agriculture budget– to target 900,000 farmers in 2019/20. Three quarters of this sum subsidized chemical fertilizer for the 2019/20 season.

The limitations of addressing hunger by subsidizing chemical fertilizer and “improved” seeds are obvious after 13 years of the program. While maize production has increased over the lifespan of FISP, it remains volatile and highly dependent on precipitation. From 2004 to 2014, maize production more than doubled to nearly 4 million tons, but subsequently dropped to under 2.4 million tons – a drastic 40 percent fall that followed drought and floods between 2015 and 2016.

The FISP program has failed to meaningfully reduce food insecurity and the high volatility of maize prices in Malawi. This volatility in prices harms farmers primarily reliant on maize: as years with good harvests see prices fall and incomes stunted, while poor production years result in not having enough surplus maize to sell. Either way, volatile prices within a maize dominant system keep Malawian farmers from climbing out of poverty.

Throughout the lifespan of FISP, Malawi has remained tethered to the bottom of various food security indicators. The Global Food Security Index currently has Malawi ranked 107 out of 113 countries in terms of affordability, availability, and quality of food. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that between 2016 and 2018 over 9.6 million Malawians – 51 percent of the population – were severely food insecure.

So why does so much money continue to support a program that has failed to significantly improve food security? If farmers are not benefitting from FISP, who is?

Benefitting Agribusiness at the Expense of Farmers

While FISP has not lifted Malawians out of hunger, it has benefitted the multinational agribusiness companies whose hybrid seed and chemical fertilizer are paid for by the program. Without subsidies, these multinational companies would have a much smaller market in poorer countries, as farmers could not afford to buy the inputs they sell. The subsidies are therefore crucial to the business of these firms in Malawi–regardless of the program’s impact.

In a chapter of his recent book Eating Tomorrow, Timothy Wise takes a deep dive into the insidious role agribusiness has played in ensuring FISP continues in Malawi. Through interviews with Monsanto staff, government officials, and academics, he reveals how the program is a “cash-cow for seed companies” and documents how FISP benefits agribusiness at the expense of farmers.

The stranglehold that the Gates Foundation and other development players behind the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) have over debt riddled African governments will not be easily broken. Major donors, working hand in hand with agribusiness, push governments towards input heavy approaches that, while profitable for corporations, have been ineffective in reducing hunger in Africa.

Politicians and farmers are trapped in a vicious cycle that is both financially and environmentally untenable. For politicians, ending FISP would be politically disastrous without offering a viable alternative to pervasive hunger. Heavily reliant on donor support, governments struggle to independently change course. For farmers, the use of chemical fertilizer depletes the land’s nutrients– requiring more fertilizer each year to produce at the same level. This creates a dead-end: Farmers’ incomes and food security don’t improve while their soil loses fertility overtime, requiring higher expenses on fertilizers every year.

While many farmers remained trapped in this cycle, those who have broken free offer a clear path forward.

An Agroecology Success Story: The Permaculture Paradise Institute

Permaculture Paradise Institute (PPI). Credit: Stacia & Kristof Nordin, NeverEnding Food
Permaculture Paradise Institute (PPI). Credit: Stacia & Kristof Nordin, NeverEnding Food


Born into a family of 12 children in Malawi, Luwayo Biswick grew up all too familiar with persistent hunger. While the government and aid agencies continued to call for more fertilizer and “better” seeds, Luwayo came to see the deeper flaws in a system designed to “provide maize at one point in the year.” Even when everything went to plan, farmers had to struggle through the long hunger season.

After working his way up to Permaculture Manager at Never Ending Food in Chitedze, Luwayo had the knowledge to implement his vision. “My aim is to build the capacity of farmers so that they can establish systems that adapt to the changing climate, thrive under difficult conditions, and provide nutritious food year round.” In line with agroecology, this system offers farmers the tools necessary to adapt to climate change by relying on a diverse range of crops sourced from farmer saved indigenous seed varieties and grown with organic fertilizer.

Luwayo saw the need to show that a better system was possible and to stand up as a pillar for those left behind by ineffective input subsidies.

Along with his wife Grace, they founded Permaculture Paradise Institute (PPI) on just over six hectares near Mchinji in 2017. Through intercropping diverse native crops, installing a simple and affordable water catchment system, planting trees, and composting organic fertilizer, the PPI farm now produces over 200 different crops without chemical fertilizers or hybrid seed.

Luwayo Biswick leading a demonstration to local farmers at PPI. Credit: Stacia & Kristof Nordin, NeverEnding Food
Luwayo Biswick leading a demonstration to local farmers at PPI. Credit: Stacia & Kristof Nordin, NeverEnding Food


Word of the farm quickly spread to surrounding villages as farmers flocked to see the rapid transformation. In 2019 alone, Luwayo and Grace trained over 150 farmers from nine surrounding villages. These farmers had land they had previously believed to be unproductive, as the conventional input heavy model had failed them. Through in depth training, distributing seeds grown at PPI, and providing follow up consultations, PPI was able to give these farmers the tools necessary to grow ample amounts of diverse food year round. In return, PPI takes 10 percent of the seeds from each farm to spread to the next group of farmers.

Without major donor funding or government subsidies, PPI has created a highly scalable model to spread the knowledge and share the seeds necessary for a deep agricultural transformation.

Adapting to Climate Change and Building Resiliency through Agroecology

Mrs. Isobel Chirwa standing in her pigeonpea field intercropped with several nitrogen-fixing shrubs. Copyright: Carmen Bezner Kerr
Mrs. Isobel Chirwa standing in her pigeonpea field intercropped with several nitrogen-fixing shrubs. Copyright: Carmen Bezner Kerr


The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Food Security makes it clear that the agroecology model directly addresses many of the concerns farmers face in the wake of ineffective input subsidy programs. Because they are diverse and adapted to local contexts, locally developed farmer seeds have been proven to be more climate resilient compared to commercial “improved” varieties. Two case studies from Malawi demonstrate how tree planting and intercropping with legumes have both been found to improve soil previously degraded by chemical fertilizer. These cases are not isolated and provide hard evidence that agroecology has proven effective for some of the most resource constrained farmers living in the least forgiving climates.

Successfully scaling agroecology in Malawi would have massive implications globally; as input subsidy programs like FISP continue to consume agriculture budgets across the continent. Just like in Malawi, these programs have largely failed–as evidenced by the intensive multi-year study conducted by the African Centre for Biodiversity on the negative impact FISP has had on Zambian farmers or by their video series that reveal farmers’ frustrations with FISP interventions across Africa.

Transitioning away from input subsidies and massively scaling up agroecology offers the only viable path forward to address hunger. The time for a system that empowers farmers instead of agribusiness, restores the fertility of our soils, and preserves our environment is long overdue.

For more information on the Permaculture Paradise Institute: Visit their Facebook Page

Highlighting the diverse range of success stories across the continent, The Oakland Institute has published 33 case studies showing the success of agroecology across Africa.