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Publication | 8 June 2021

Disentangling food security from subsistence agriculture in Malawi

Global Food and Nutrition Security

Malawi’s many smallholders rely heavily on rainfed, low-input subsistence farming to meet their food needs. Yet for most rural Malawian households, subsistence agriculture cannot consistently produce enough food to ward off hunger. Nor can they rely on the country’s weak markets to buy additional food they may require or to profitably sell their agricultural products throughout the year. Government policies have long prioritized agricultural production among marginal farmers for food security rather than broader policies of economic diversification, market expansion, and growth. The book identifies crucial changes that could improve food security and, in the long term, facilitate agricultural transformation. Decades of research in Malawi are synthesized to propose policy solutions for the country’s persistent food insecurity and for agricultural transformation that could drive long-term economic growth. This work should be useful to policymakers, development specialists, and others concerned with how Malawi or other countries facing similar rural economic development challenges can realize sustainable food security.

Policy and public investment recommendations

  • Continue efforts to increase agricultural productivity and reduce volatility in food supplies;
  • Strengthen agriculture and food markets in Malawi by ensuring predictable government engagement, adopting policy stances that are supportive of agricultural market traders, and expanding participation in regional markets;
  • Target agricultural development investments to commercially oriented smallholder farming households, while also addressing the needs of all households that are food insecure;
  • Develop incentives for Malawians to work outside of agriculture, ensuring they have the skills to productively do so.

Attention is also given to reforming the institutional framework through which public efforts are made to address food insecurity in Malawi. Food security policy should be informed by a broader conceptualization of how Malawian households can reliably access the food they require beyond subsistence production. Institutionally, an approach to food security is needed that goes beyond agriculture alone to encompass multiple sectors and draws upon high-level leadership, coordination, and accountability.