At the start of 2011, there were 925 million hungry people worldwide. By the end of the year, extreme weather and rising food prices may have driven the total back to one billion, where it last peaked in 2008. Oxfam is calling for investment in small-scale farmers – who feed one third of humanity – and recognition of the crucial role women play in feeding the world.
Regional media and communications coordinator Nicole Johnston visited Oxfam’s money transfer scheme in Malawi, which gives vulnerable citizens access to basic foodstuffs. She highlights why governments should invest in small-scale producers.
They file into the church, some bent over walking sticks, others with babies slung on their backs, but all poor and in need of help to ensure they eat enough to survive.
In the dim light of the church, its walls decorated with hand-painted frescoes, they sit in the pews and wait to collect their identity cards, which will allow them to collect their small allowance from Oxfam’s cash transfer scheme.
“The government did a vulnerability assessment and identified districts in which people simply were not getting enough to eat,” says Oxfam programme manager Felix Mtonda. “They could not grow enough to eat, and they had exhausted all other coping mechanisms such as selling livestock.”
The decision to hand small sums of cash to vulnerable people in Chitimbe village, in the Balaka district of southern Malawi, instead of trucking in food aid, was based on several factors, says Mtonda. “There is food available on the market, so we didn’t want to distort local prices by flooding the market with food. The cash transfer project allows us to stimulate the local market by injecting cash into it, and this helps local food producers.”
As he speaks, a line of women arrive and set up shop behind the church. Wrapped in colourful chitenje, each carries a basket on her head filled with foodstuffs for sale – from cassava to groundnuts to thobwa (a sweet gruel).
“The average monthly household income in this area is about US$6,” explains Mtonda. “Most people here live below the $2 a day threshold, and this means there often is no food in the house. Children who don’t eat, often don’t go to school because they are too hungry to concentrate. It is also difficult for them to walk long distances to school on an empty stomach. Chronic malnutrition leads to children being stunted, so they don’t reach their full height or weight, and it also impacts on their mental development and education.”
In addition to the impact of hunger on children’s development and education, a lack of food has serious health implications in a region with one of the world’s highest adult HIV prevalence rates. Antiretroviral (ARVs) medication cannot be taken on an empty stomach and people living with HIV need to eat more regularly. “Some people stop taking their ARVs because they don’t have the food to eat first. In some cases this leads to drug resistance, and other people just die,” says Mtonda.
The cash amount provided to beneficiaries of the cash transfer scheme is miniscule by the standards of the developed world: each person in a registered household gets the equivalent of $US3 a month – less than the price of a Starbucks latte. But it is enough to ensure that each person can afford to buy 50kg of maize, 1 litre of cooking oil and 5kg of pulses.
As well as food, it also gives poor people the dignity of choice. “Having a little bit of cash allows people to buy what they really want or need. Some people use a little of the money for non-food items like soap,” explains Mtonda. In addition, the cash transfer scheme, which is run in collaboration with a local bank and uses smart cards, allows people the chance to have a bank account and to save money – a rarity in remote rural areas.
‘THIS CASH HELPS ME TO BUY FOOD …’
Simon Dautala (55)
“This project has helped me a lot because I am able to buy food. It is difficult for me because I live alone after my wife passed away. I survive by doing ganyu (casual labour) in other people’s fields. The best part of getting cash is that after I have bought maize I have a little left over to buy soap and maybe some fish to go with my nsima (maize porridge, staple food). I eat twice a day. I really miss eating papaya, sweet potatoes and bananas. We used to grow them here but now the weather has changed and the plants don’t grow well anymore.”
Edith Msosa (23)
“My mum is very old, and she only has me to help her. I am married and I have two daughters. I joined this cash transfer project because the rains are very poor. We can’t grow enough food to last the whole year. Before, the food used to last from the harvest in April until December. But now the food is finished by August. The old people tell us that the rains used to be more regular and they could grow a lot of food on our land. Now the rain is just unpredictable. If we plant and it doesn’t rain, the seeds die in the ground. If they have sprouted and the rains don’t come, then the seedlings get burned by the sun. The cash transfer helps me to buy extra food like usipa (small dried fish), cassava, mangoes, salt and soap. If this project gave us more money, I would save it to buy a goat and breed more goats. That way I would know that if we had a crisis like one of the children getting sick, I could sell a goat to pay the hospital.”
Flora Kadewere (30)
“I am married with two children, and I am HIV-positive. Before joining this programme we survived on my husband’s charcoal burning and my ganyu. This cash helps me to buy food so I can work in my own fields, instead of having to do ganyu in other people’s fields. Now, we can sometimes eat three times a day. My eldest daughter is 12 and she is also affected by this HIV, so she got shingles which has affected her eyes. With this money I can take her to the hospital in Balaka to get treatment for her eyes. It also helps because now I have enough money for transport to go to the clinic to fetch my ARVs. In the past I would sometimes miss my treatment because I couldn’t afford to get there. My daughter needs to eat a lot of food and a balanced diet so that she can take her ARVS. I would like to feed her more. There is a school fund that is saving for things like a new roof, and I am proud that at last I can also contribute that 50 kwacha (US33c) to help the children. I stopped school in Standard 7, so my prayer is for my children to finish secondary school and have a better life.”