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Lilongwe - Now that many families are eating mangoes to survive, the villagers of Lulanga, along the southern tip of Lake Malawi, are sure they're facing a food shortage.
Villagers say they exhausted their stocks of maize - Malawi's staple food - in August. Many households are left with no choice but to eat mangoes, a seasonal fruit, as their main source of nutrients.
“We will perish if something is not done quickly. We failed to harvest enough maize last season,” says local leader Ndala Malume.
He blames the hunger on bad weather and the high price of farming goods like fertilisers. The government, Malume says, should have done more to help the agricultural sector.
Aisha Mussa, a local resident, says even people who have some money cannot afford costly imported maize.
“It is true that many families have no food. We also have some families that are surviving on mangoes,” she says. “The vendors who bring maize from Mozambique are charging high prices. Very few people can afford it.”
“This is only October and the supplies are not there. What will happen to the people in January or February? People cannot survive on mangoes forever before they will start starving to death. I hope someone will come to our rescue soon,” Mussa said.
A 50kg bag of maize is going for roughly 7 000 kwacha (about $18). People fear that, should the scarcity persist, the price could more than double by March.
Some concerned citizens believe private traders are deliberately hoarding maize to cash in during the leanest parts of the year.
Nearly 1.5 million households are currently in need of food assistance as the lean season approaches, according to a report from the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC), a group comprising government departments, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations.
In its report MVAC stated: “While the most severe levels of hunger are not expected until the height of the lean season in January to February, WFP (UN World Food Programme) and its partners decided to launch their joint relief operation in October because of evidence that household food stocks in many areas were already depleted.”
The government of President Joyce Banda, who faces elections next year, says there is no need for panic.
“The government is doing everything possible to ensure that those who don't have enough food from their harvest are reached with food assistance,” says Jeffrey Kanyinji, secretary for the Department of Disaster Management Affairs.
He explained that the government is making available 25 000 metric tons of maize from grain reserves to support the relief operation. The first tranche of 10 000 tons of maize will be released this month. Minister of Agriculture James Munthali said the state was doing all it could to cushion Malawians from hunger.
“At the moment, we have gone flat out, procuring maize and other food commodities in the country, as well as from our neighbouring countries, which have surplus food for sale,” Munthali said.
While the total number of people in need of food aid has dropped slightly since last year, the WFP says they are dispersed more widely across the country, making delivery challenging.
“We are racing against time to secure enough funding to pre-position food before the rains and before food and transport rates increase further. What's more, the affected area is larger and more dispersed than in recent years,” explains Ushiyama.
The current concerns come against the backdrop of charges of negligence. In April, there were reports that 30 000 metric tons of maize that could be used now went bad in the grain reserves in Lilongwe. The opposition and civil society are demanding answers from government.
According to the Civil Society Agriculture Network (Cisanet), the problem that caused the maize to rot at the National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA) silos in Lilongwe was first noticed three years ago.