Malawi is home to only 19.1 million people, a small population by any standard. Yet, according to the UN, more than 2.8 million Malawians are currently facing starvation, nearly 15% of the total population. , Unsurprisingly, much of the reason has to do with the weather: the country’s agriculture ministry said production of maize, the country’s main staple, fell 14% the previous year, due of the severe drought and floods that have occurred. in many parts of the country due to climate change.
One of the poorest countries on the planet with more than half of its population living in poverty, Malawi is no stranger to food crises. Nearly three-quarters of its residents live on less than $1.90 a day. Agriculture is the economic mainstay of the country, with about 80 percent of the rural population living from agriculture. Climatic devastation caused by human activity – from floods to droughts – can decimate crops, upsetting livelihoods as well as the ability to feed people.
It would be impossible to simply nudge the people of Malawi towards a new type of industry that is more resilient to climate-related change; and people would continue to starve for lack of available food. So the solution might instead be to completely change the farming system and move away from corn itself.
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A study published in 2021 shows that smallholder dairy farmers in Malawi have much higher food yields and annual incomes, more diversified sources of income, and are more resilient to food insecurity than non-dairy farmers. In this way, Malawi quickly becomes something of a case study for whether the future of agriculture is to double milk production and investment.
Why dairy products? What makes it a safer farming bet? According to Timothy Gondwe, professor of animal husbandry at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi, animals generally have an easier time adapting to climate change than plants. Corn has no way of modifying its behavior to survive a drought, for example. But a cow will still be able to produce milk, and her body might, to some extent, adjust and adapt to the heat to continue to stay healthy. And since dairy products are a year-round staple, they can be a stable source of income to support a family.
“In drought-prone areas, failed crops become food for dairy products, as well as cultivated and preserved herbs,” Gondwe told The Daily Beast. For this reason, dairy products are part of livestock [goats and chickens] that contribute to resilience to climate change among smallholder communities.
Gondwe uses the term ‘smallholder’ to refer to small farms where crops alone are unlikely to provide enough cash for a household – ‘therefore dairy becomes a better option’, he said .
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Livestock, of course, are not immune to the effects of climate change. A drought will inevitably harm milk production or even kill cows outright. But Gondwe argues that it’s easier to identify and grow exotic breeds that can withstand changing conditions more easily.
“Animals in these areas are generally local and have adapted to such situations, and are able to produce and reproduce at low rates consistent with production systems,” he said. “Because of this, a farmer loses in terms of yield per animal, but still gets some production.”
In recent years, Malawi has seen the number of dairy farmers grow, in part thanks to investments from non-profit organisations, the private sector and government. The Ministry of Agriculture reported a 3.4% increase in the number of dairy cows in 2021. That same year, Norfund invested around $5 million in Lilongwe Dairy, a milk processing company located in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, to finance the expansion of the business and increase milk production. Lilongwe Dairy buys milk from around 10,000 farmers across the country, according to chief operating officer Edwin Chilundo.
And in 2019, the government of Malawi, with a loan from the World Bank, launched a six-year, $95 million Agricultural Commercialization Project (AGCOM) to increase milk production for 650,000 farming households in the country.
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Gracian Lungu, spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, told The Daily Beast that one of the government’s main priorities is to help farmers diversify what they grow and produce to adapt to the worsening impacts of the climate change, and helping agriculture find solutions to food insecurity. . Apart from dairy products, the government is encouraging farmers to grow more pulses and engage in aquaculture fishing.
Lukasi Jekete, a 58-year-old dairy farmer in Lilongwe, thinks he has first-hand experience that dairy farmers fare better than others who focus solely on maize production.
“This year, Malawians are facing food shortages,” he told the Daily Beast. “And when you go to the market, the price of food has almost quintupled compared to the same time last year.”
Jekete said the drought caused crops in the fields to wilt before they matured.
“As a result, many smallholder farmers have not harvested enough to feed their families,” he said. “Dairy farmers are lucky because despite the drought we can get milk every day and use the money to buy maize.”
Jekete began dairy farming in 2007 after obtaining a cow from the Small Scale Livestock and Livelihoods Program (SSLP). Today he owns six cows and receives 20 liters of milk a day, selling milk at $0.22 per litre.
“Any investment in the dairy industry is welcome,” Herbert Chagona, national director of the Malawi Dairy Producers Association, told The Daily Beast. Climate change has “really devastated the agricultural sector” and dairy has proven to be more resilient to the effects than other agricultural sectors. He welcomed Norfund’s investment and hopes that more government and private sector involvement will help more farmers make the transition to dairy as part of their job.
To be fair, dairy farming is not immune to climate change. Livestock can be difficult to raise and maintain. Climate change adds to these challenges by making it more difficult to access animal feed and increasing the spread of disease. Gondwe says efforts to breed more adaptive cattle could offset these issues, and he recommends farmers keep a mix of exotic and local breeds. It also recommends better land management to ensure more sustainable access to animal feed.
“These [solutions]if well implemented on the farm, increase milk production which is a solution to food insecurity,” he said.
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