Food Security and Famine Prevention (Africa)

Part of Backbench Business — [31st Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 2:50 pm on 15th September 2011.

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Photo of Tom Greatrex Tom Greatrex Shadow Minister (Scotland) 2:50 pm, 15th September 2011

I congratulate my hon. Friend Heidi Alexander and Amber Rudd on both securing the debate and their speeches. Several other Members have also made powerful contributions. They focused on the horn of Africa, and rightly so given current circumstances.

Given the breadth of the motion however, I want to touch briefly on food security in Malawi. I should first declare an interest: I am the co-chair of the all-party group on Zambia and Malawi. Some positive signs are coming out of Malawi, which it is useful to bear in mind when considering wider issues across Africa. In 2004, national food production in Malawi was 0.9 million metric tonnes in deficit. In 2011, it is estimated that there will be a food surplus of 1.2 million metric tonnes. That is a remarkable turnaround, and is in no small part thanks to the farm input subsidy programme introduced in 2005 by the Malawi Government and supported by international aid.

Agriculture is the backbone of the Malawi economy, contributing more than one third of entire GDP and employing 80% of the country’s work force. The programme targeted support at the most vulnerable households, allowing them to access the fertiliser and maize seed required to improve agricultural productivity and food security. A voucher system was used, which targeted millions of maize farmers and hundreds of thousands of tobacco farmers. Farmers used the coupons to purchase fertilisers and seed.

Combined with sometimes favourable rain seasons, the programme resulted in dramatically increased maize harvests. That has allowed the Malawi Government to transform the country from a land of perennial famine to a net exporter of maize. Malawi now exports 400,000 tonnes of grain to Zimbabwe and 80,000 tonnes to Swaziland and Lesotho. Not only has harvest yield increased, but the programme has improved the food loss situation. In talking about the importance of food production, other Members have touched on reducing food loss, and post-harvest food loss in Malawi has fallen to 7.6% in 2009-10, which is a dramatic improvement on the previous figure. As the United States Agency for International Development confirms in its most recent assessment of food security in Malawi, the outlook is good.

There are, however, considerable diplomatic and governance issues in respect of Malawi, as the Minister will know, and there are still pockets of the country where the situation is not so positive, mainly in the south. Concerns have also been raised in some quarters about various elements of the programme, particularly the multinational seed suppliers and some issues touched on earlier by Caroline Nokes. However, the Malawi successes are worth highlighting as examples of where, beyond addressing initial, pressing famine needs, long-term planning can make a positive difference, as there may be lessons for other parts of Africa.

Like my hon. Friend Cathy Jamieson, I want to use this debate as an opportunity to pay tribute to the Scotland-based charity, Mary’s Meals. It started its work in Malawi back in 2002, providing school meals to impoverished children. Incredibly, it now provides meals to 450,000 Malawian schoolchildren a day. Food security is central to the raison d’être of Mary’s Meals. The organisation was set up after a conversation between its founder and the eldest son of a Malawian woman dying of AIDS. When he was asked what he wanted from life, his response was that he wanted to have enough to eat and to go to school one day. Those are not particularly lofty aspirations, but for very many people in Malawi they were but a dream. It is on that basis that Mary’s Meals adopts a very simple approach in Malawi, which is that education is the best route out of poverty and food insecurity. A hungry child is a restless child, and a restless child is less likely to learn. Education is key to climbing out of poverty and to ensuring food security for the people of Malawi and other countries.

As I stated, Malawi is far from perfect. There are many problems there and many issues still need to be addressed: too many of its citizens still live in inhumane poverty; too many children go without food; and too many people still die of HIV/AIDS. However, at a time of great famine in other parts of the continent, the progress made in Malawi is a timely reminder of what specific and targeted Government action can do to increase food security for some of the most impoverished in the world.