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Families in Malawi need help to survive the lean season

Poor harvests in Malawi have left around 1.6 million people facing food insecurity according to the latest World Food Programme (WFP) update.

The WFP is warning that the humanitarian needs of Malawians in some regions are rising as the lean season approaches from January to March.

Families under stress due to poor crop levels during 2011-2012 are mainly located in southern districts of the country. Here, the number of food insecure people has risen from around 0.2 million in 2011 to nearly 2 million this year. To make up for some of the shortages, UKAID is paying for surplus maize supplies from the north to be transported south. Other food is also being imported into local markets, but can only be bought at higher prices, some of which are 50-100% more than in 2011.

One smallholder who lives in Phalombe in southern Malawi spoke to the World Food Programme about the struggle facing her family. Saukila Black has five children and relies on the crops she and her husband grow. But any new harvest will not arrive until at least March next year. Until then, their supplies are running very low. “We only eat in the morning and at night,” she tells the WFP, explaining “it’s always difficult for the children to go to sleep on an empty stomach, so we skip lunch and eat in the evening.”

Like many people in southern and central Malawi, Saukila receives monthly food rations through the WFP. Some families also receive cash to buy food, which is delivered through mobile phones or local banks as part of a new scheme. But with the high prices of food at local markets, it’s still a real challenge for families to feed themselves.

A spokesperson for the WFP in Blantyre explained that assistance with food began as early as August, but support is being stepped up as the country goes “into the lean season”. Food supplies given out include pulses, cereals, corn soya blend and oil. This package is designed not only to help families feed themselves, but also to ensure the survival of a goat if they have one. “We want to help [families] to avoid getting into a bad situation,” explains the WFP head, which might mean selling the precious asset of any livestock.

The new rainy season should start soon. But many smallholders across central and southern areas remain anxious. Deciding when to plant their precious seed can be a huge gamble, especially when rain patterns are becoming more erratic. Farmers like Saukila know that if their next harvest is poor, she and her family will face more shortages again next year.

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