Hunger in Malawi: “The biggest crisis in a generation”

Mary Nsona and Agatha Blam from Jimu village in Nsanje District, Southern Malawi. Photo by Caoimhe Debarra/Concern Worldwide.
Mary Nsona and Agatha Blam from Jimu village in Nsanje District, Southern Malawi. Photo by Caoimhe Debarra/Concern Worldwide.

As the food crisis in Malawi worsens, Concern Country Director Caoimhe Debarra, discusses what she is seeing on the ground and her hope that the international community is finally waking up to this emergency.

Concern Country Director in Malawi, Caoimhe Debarra at the Concern office in Lilongwe. Photo by Concern Worldwide.
Concern Country Director in Malawi, Caoimhe Debarra at the Concern office in Lilongwe. Photo by Concern Worldwide.

Alarm bells have been ringing in Malawi for many months regarding the growing food crisis. This week, the international community ramped up efforts to draw attention to the emergency with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Head of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), Ertharin Cousin and the UN’s Assistant Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Kyung Wha Kang visiting the country.

For those on the ground, like Concern Country Director, Caoimhe, the crisis has been a long time brewing. In 2015, floods and drought meant that 2.8 million people were in need food assistance to survive. This year, droughts, driven by El Niño, devastated the entire southern region and badly affected other parts of the country. As a result, an alarming 6.5 million people are in need of food assistance. Caoimhe notes:

Malawi is now the country with the highest number of people facing severe hunger in all of southern Africa. 6.5 million people out of a population of 17 million is huge: more than one in three people face having no food for months on end.

Failed rains, empty harvests

Earlier this year, Caoimhe met with communities in Nsanje District, Southern Malawi. She talked with farmers Mary Nsona and Agatha Blam from Jimu village who worked intensively with Concern advisors to prepare their land for the harvest: “They prepared their land together through long hours of hard labour: they mulched, dug basins to reduce moisture loss, dug canals for irrigation,” tells Caoimhe, “They were prepared for a good harvest even with low rainfall levels, however when the rains failed completely, they harvested nothing.”

This is the biggest crisis in a generation, the scale of which people did not think that they were going to see again in Malawi.

Mary Nsona and Agatha Blam from Jimu village in Nsanje District, Southern Malawi. Photo by Caoimhe Debarra/Concern Worldwide.
Mary Nsona and Agatha Blam from Jimu village in Nsanje District, Southern Malawi. Photo by Caoimhe Debarra/Concern Worldwide.

International community waking up

Ban Ki-moon and Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) visited Malawi this month to draw global attention to the situation which, the WFP says, will require the “largest humanitarian response ever in the country’s history”.

Caoimhe notes: “Ban Ki-moon and Ertharin Cousin’s visit is significant in that it shows that the world is finally starting to realise how serious the food crisis here in Malawi is. However, there are so many crises going on worldwide and funding is in very short supply.”

The problem is being felt by humanitarian crisis the world over and the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has predicted that there will be a global shortfall in funding for humanitarian emergencies of $10 billion by the end of the year. This means intense competition for resources and an urgent need to prioritise the most effective emergency responses possible, according to Caoimhe.

Emergency response and climate smart agriculture

Support is needed on the ground now. Concern is there, working to both address the immediate emergency and equip communities to cope in the months and years to come.

Peter Nyirenda, a driver on Concern’s RELIEF project stands beside a van loaded with fertiliser at the Concern office in in Mchinji, Malawi. Peter will spend the day distributing fertiliser to farmers throughout the district. Photo by Aoife O’Grady/Concern Worldwide.
Peter Nyirenda, a driver on Concern’s RELIEF project stands beside a van loaded with fertiliser at the Concern office in in Mchinji, Malawi. Peter will spend the day distributing fertiliser to farmers throughout the district. Photo by Aoife O’Grady/Concern Worldwide.

In terms of emergency work, our team is beginning to distribute cash to people who are most vulnerable so they can – at the very least – buy food and cover their basic needs. We are also training and providing materials for farmers to adopt climate-smart agriculture on their land.

Through the RELIEF project, for example, our teams in the district of Mchinji are supporting over 5,000 farmers whose vulnerability was already exposed by last year’s drought and are now struggling to cope with the effect of the second year of drought. Supported by ECHO, we are providing them with watering cans and seeds.

Chinese cabbage seeds to be distributed to farmers in Mchinji, Malawi through Concern and ECHO’s RELIEF project. Concern has already trained farmers to make compost manually and will distribute these seeds and fertiliser to over 5,000 farmers. Photo taken by Aoife O’Grady/Concern Worldwide.
Chinese cabbage seeds to be distributed to farmers in Mchinji, Malawi through Concern and ECHO’s RELIEF project. Concern has already trained farmers to make compost manually and will distribute these seeds and fertiliser to over 5,000 farmers. Photo taken by Aoife O’Grady/Concern Worldwide.

We’re also training them in how to prepare their land so that they harvest as much water as possible from rainfall and use every drop of moisture productively. We are helping them to build soil fertility and to reduce reliance on expensive chemical fertiliser, by producing their own compost and manure. We are helping them to grow a diverse range of nutritious crops such as orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, to eat at home and to sell to the market.

Caoimhe concludes, “In times of crisis like this, people sell everything they have right down to their handheld farming tools, leaving them extremely vulnerable to hunger. People withdraw children from school, leaving their entire futures at risk. People marry off young girls, fearful that they cannot feed them as well as other family members. The RELIEF project typifies how Concern is working with communities to meet immediate needs, recover, build resilience and ultimately break the cycle of food insecurity.”

You can help

Donate now to support those in Malawi and other countries affected by El Niño.

Lebanon Christmas appeal

  • Over 1.5m people have fled to Lebanon since the conflict in Syria began

  • Most are living in garages, abandoned buildings and makeshift tents, despite freezing temperatures

  • Can you help a family in Lebanon this Christmas?

Support this appeal

New to Concern?

Sign up to find out more about the transformative work we do in 25 of the world's poorest countries.

Before doing so you might like to see our privacy policy.
Share your concern