Speaking before an enthusiastic crowd at Boston University last week, Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika rolled out a new plan for African food security.
“I want to discuss with you not widespread food shortages, hunger and malnutrition, but how Africa can produce enough food to feed its people and the rest of the world,” he said.
The president’s plan, entitled “The African Food Basket: Innovations, Interventions and Strategic Partnerships,” aims to eliminate child hunger and malnutrition, and to assure African food independence within five years. Envisioning agriculture as the engine of economic growth, Mutharika also asserts that his plan will lead to sustainable development throughout the continent.
“I have brought to you today the message of a new Africa, the Africa of a New Beginning,” he said. “I have brought you news that Africa has shifted its mindset from Afro-pessimism to Afro-optimism.”
Mutharika, president of Malawi since 2004, is also a trained economist. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from Pacific Western University in Los Angeles, a master’s degree in economics and a bachelor’s degree in commerce from the University of Delhi in India. Mutharika has also authored a number of books, including “The African Dream: From Poverty to Prosperity.”
In addition to governing the sub-Saharan state of Malawi, Mutharika is also chairperson of the African Union.
Prior to Mutharika’s presidency, Malawi relied on food imports and suffered from chronic famine and hunger. In 2005, just a year into Mutharika’s first term, a bad corn harvest left nearly 5 million of the country’s 13 million people dependent on emergency food aid. But the disaster motivated the new president. As he told the audience at BU, he determined to “never, ever kneel down and beg for food” again.
Mutharika then transformed the country’s food policy — mostly by introducing fertilizer subsidies — and with the help of generous rains, saw an immediate turn-around. By the following year, the corn harvest more than doubled — from 1.2 million metric tons in 2005 to 2.7 million metric tons in 2006. By 2007, the harvest increased again, to 3.4 million, according to government figures.
Malawi then began exporting hundreds of thousands of tons of corn to Zimbabwe, and began selling more corn to the U.N.’s World Food Program than any other sub-Saharan nation. With these improvements in food production, acute child hunger has fallen.
After the devastating earthquake earlier this year, Malawi sent 200 tons of rice to Haiti.
But Malawi is not the only success story in African food security. The president also cited the examples of Egypt, Sudan, South Africa, Ghana, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria and Cameroon.
“Mutharika has taken Malawi from being a beggar state to a food exporting state,” said Charles R. Stith, former U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania and Director of BU’s African Presidential Archives and Research Center, the organization hosing the event. “As the current African Union Chairperson, he has dedicated himself to doing for Africa what he has done for Malawi. Given Africa’s agricultural potential, it should be the world’s bread basket.”
Mutharika’s “African Food Basket” plan includes three components: introducing subsidies, and scaling-up irrigation and transportation infrastructure.
Although subsidies were successful in Malawi, they are not without controversy abroad. In order to advance a more free-market economy, the World Bank has pushed Malawi and other African nations to eliminate fertilizer subsidies — even though the United States and Europe rely heavily on farm subsidies.
The president proposed subsidies not only for fertilizers, but also for seeds and pesticides, and for farming equipment like irrigation technology. Although his proposal stands against World Bank policy, Mutharika is steadfast. “The Washington Consensus says to stop all subsidies,” he told the crowd. “And I say, this is where we part ways.”
Highlighting the importance of irrigation, Mutharika said that only seven percent of African arable land is irrigated. With proper irrigation technology, he hopes “the whole of Africa [will be] covered with a green blanket of forests and new grasslands.”
As it is now, 90 percent of arable land in Africa is not being cultivated — revealing the enormous agricultural potential in the continent.
Improved transportation infrastructure will make food distribution more efficient, easing the movement from surplus to deficit areas. In his plan, the president also mentioned the importance of energy development, information and communication technology, and battling climate change.
In an interview with the Banner after the event, the president said that the U.S. also faces food insecurity. “I know that low-income people have difficulties,” he said, explaining that an important issue for Americans continues to be providing affordable, nutritious food to the poor.
Mutharika also explained that his biggest challenge back home will be encouraging Africans to own the new food programs. “When you get ownership, you get people who are committed,” he said. “I don’t want to tell people what to do.”
“If something goes wrong, don’t blame someone else,” he continued. “When you make a mistake, you realize what kind of mistake you made, and correct it.”