By the time the government launched the initiative in December, some of the reforms it had committed to were already under way
Liz Ford in Blantyretheguardian.com, Tuesday 18 February 2014 04.59 EST
A Malawian farmer waters his maize crop. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian
Cryton Chipeta and Charles Mazibuko have not heard of the G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. The treasurer and secretary, respectively, of the Chisemphere farmers' organisation in Kasungu,Malawi, are also unaware of their government's plans to earmark 200,000 hectares of land for large-scale commercial farming, relax export bans on certain crops, reform its tax laws to make it easier for companies to do business in the country and enact a new land bill.
What Chipeta and Mazibuko do know is that Monsanto offers the best seeds in town, but at a price.
"The benefits are the higher yields and early maturity, but they are quite expensive," Chipeta said.
"But it's worth it, especially if we have a good buyer, like the World Food Programme," added Mazibuko, who is in Blantyre with Chipeta in the hope of selling the maize grown by the farmers' group 208 members to the WFP. "More people are buying hybrid seeds because of the high yields. Hybrids are very resistant to disease," he said.
Chipeta says a 5kg bag of seeds costs up to 4,000 kwacha (more than £5), not a trivial sum when, according to government statistics, over 40% of the country's population of more than 15 million live on less than $1.25 (£0.75) a day. But local seeds are vulnerable to increasingly erratic weather conditions.
The catch for farmers buying hybrid seeds from the likes of Monsanto and the Seed Co Malawi, which dominate the market, is they will need to buy new seeds every year, as what they purchase only lasts for one season.
Monsanto is one of the eight international companies that have signed up to the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Malawi. A further 15 companies registered in Malawi, but not necessarily Malawian-owned or managed, are also involved. The 23 companies are jointly promising $100m (£63m) in investments in agriculture.
Malawi announced its was joining the G8 initiative in June last year, promising a range of policy commitments and legislative changes to make the country more attractive to private investors and boost its agricultural output. The changes are to be rolled out between December 2013 and the end of 2018, but most should come into effect over the next two years.
Food insecurity is a huge problem in Malawi. Parts of the country, particularly in the south, are heavily reliant on the UN and NGOs for assistance. Last month, the Malawi vulnerability assessment committee said more than 1.85 million people - more than 10% of the country's population - will need food assistance between January and March. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 1.6 million people received food aid from WFP and NGOs in January. Late rains and sustained high food prices following the government's decision to devalue the kwacha in 2012 are blamed.
The government believes the new alliance will improve the lives of 1.7 million people in Malawi by 2022 through the production of more nutritious crops, investment in agro-processing and increased exports.
Universal Industries, a Blantyre-based snacks and drinks manufacturer, is waiting to hear if it will get a slice of the 200,000 hectares ring-fenced for private investment. The company, which last year took part in new alliance discussions on the policy changes that would help private companies do their work, wants to produce breakfast cereals using locally grown rice and maize, a nutritious porridge by processing soya flour and an instant soya meal. The company is bringing $2m to the table, and sees local farmers as key to making its plans a reality.
Chief executive Kaushik Pillalamarri said around 4,000 hectares of land would allow the company to develop its proposals.
Pilalklamari said it was already working with local smallholders, buying produce and supporting them with technical and good practice advice. "We give them the technical knowhow. It's important that we give them this so they will be successful," he said.
Including farmers into the value chain was crucial to improving incomes,food security and nutrition in the country, he added.
There are concerns, however, about the lack of information available to farmers like Chipeta and Mazibuko. The government only officially launched the New Alliance in December, by which time some of the proposals in its co-operation framework were already in process.
An NGO worker, who declined to be named, said the potential to develop agriculture in Malawi was huge, but that big agricultural companies such as Monsanto dominated the market.
"Eighty percent of people are subsistence farmers. They can easily be turned into commercial farmers if they are supported," he said.
"Farmers need to be listened to. There are no shortcuts to development. Donors are interested in results, quick wins, but most of the problems need long-term [solutions]. You have to talk to farmers."