Farmers struggle in Malawi's poor economic climate
For farmer Gerevanzio Suluma, the 2011-12 growing season has been disastrous. He is one of thousands of Malawian farmers who once cultivated maize but switched to cotton - an idea that has proven very costly.
"Last year the prices of cotton were very good. Our friends who grew cotton made a lot of money," Sulama recalls. He felt at the time that he was wasting time by growing maize.
"We joined the fray of cotton growers hoping we would make money. But look at the (low) prices we are being offered on the market! Worse still, we did not grow enough maize and we are already starving," laments Suluma, who lives in the southern district of Balaka.
Global prices for cotton have plummeted from record highs a year ago, halving in value and returning to historical averages. The global economic malaise has also played its part.
Farmers in Malawi, an agricultural-based economy and one of the poorest countries in the world, are very susceptible to global price shocks.
The landlocked southern African nation, where a majority of the population lives in poverty, recently took hits when other cash crops lost value - although tobacco, a major export, is seeing its price rebound.
Suluma says he must feed a family of six and the supplies in his granary are dwindling.
"There was plenty of grain last year and the prices kept falling. We expected the price of maize to fall further this year," he says, blaming traders for playing with the market.
"The traders hiked the price almost three times and there is speculation that, by the end of the year, a bag of maize will cost a fortune," Suluma says.
Another farmer in the district - an area prone to poor cyclical rainfalls - says he did not join the bandwagon of those who excitedly thought they would rake in huge profits from cotton.
"I remained a maize farmer but the rains did not help matters. All I got in the end was a wilted maize field," says Duncan Chikuse.
"I have to buy extra maize to feed my family, all year round," he says. The irony of buying exactly the same product he grows is not lost on him.
Chikuse hopes the government will intervene to help the many families like his who have become food insecure.
According to a recent governmental assessment, some 1.63 million people, or about 11 per cent of Malawi's population, will require food aid this year. In 2011, about 200,000 people needed such support.
Malawi was once touted by the government as a shining example of how farm subsidies can transform a country from a food beggar to leading regional bread basket.
Late president Bingu wa Mutharika introduced a subsidy programme in 2005 to lift the productivity of smallholder farmers after several years of drought and poor harvests.
His move was widely unpopular with institutions like the International Monetary Fund, which said the fertilizer subsidy programme was too expensive and undermined private sector activity.
Initially, the plan worked, and output dramatically increased. But over time, the system was not sustainable. Moreover, as Mutharika became more authoritarian and less fiscally responsible, he argued with donors, causing vital international aid flows to dry up.
By mid-2011 the country was in a period of economic rot.
In April, Mutharika died and, after a two-day political battle, was replaced by his vice president Joyce Banda, who has revived donor support for the country and garnered praise from the United States and other key donors.
The government depends on foreign help for about 40 per cent of its budget.
One of Banda's key reforms was to devalue the local currency, the kwacha, to close the gap between black market prices and the official rate.
While seen as the only option for the economy, the move - along with the relaxation of other financial rules - is likely to test inflation limits and might make things harder for the weakest.
The IMF, in a recent report, stressed there was a "need to strengthen social safety nets to help mitigate the impact of adjustment policies on the poor."
Banda's government will now have to find some way to help those immediately at risk of hunger, while also sparing resources to invest in more productive future harvests, so the country can begin to get back on its feet.