The context: The country, society and land
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and its economy is dependent on agriculture (as well as on foreign aid), exporting tobacco (which alone contributes over half of the value of exports), tea and sugar, along with a range of food crops. Most people live in rural areas (84%, down from 91% in 1977), and draw on land for their own consumption as well as for produce for sale. Since the end of the colonial period, land has increased steadily in value as population has risen, as new crops and crop varieties have been introduced, and, especially over the past two decades, as gaining a reasonable livelihood for most in the face of national and regional political-economic setbacks has become more difficult. The commercial value of land, both for its products and for non-agricultural uses
(residences, tourism, market centres, etc.), is highest within reach of markets, the main towns and roads, the lake shore, and access to international borders.
The country has experienced considerable policy and political change over the past decades. Under the autocratic Dr Banda (from independence to 1994), the ‘dual’ structure of agriculture was reinforced, whereby estates retained the privileged right to produce the most valuable crops, while smallholders were required to sell their crops at lower prices to the marketing board. The result was a hidden subsidy to the estates, because the surplus built up by the board was funnelled through banks as soft loans to Malawian estate owners (Kydd & Christiansen 1982). The supposed ‘market miracle’ of Malawi, as it was celebrated through the 1970s, was a smoke-and-mirrors way to privilege a small elite. Banda’s regime came to an end in 1994, when the country entered the period of ‘multiparty politics’. This political change interacted with economic processes and the overly strong influence of donor aid on policy reform (Harrigan 2003). Flawed programmes of structural adjustment and market liberalisation put in place from 1981 were too hastily implemented, and mistakenly assumed that a private market would emerge immediately. Instead, the results were a food crisis by 1987 (Harrigan 1988, 1997; Sahn et al. 1990), and a failure of the private market to ensure adequate and affordable supplies of the staple maize in the food-deficit period – a failure exacerbated by erratic government performance that continues to the present.
A recent assessment of the ‘challenge for rural development’ in Malawi repeats the overall story of a rural population with a ‘narrow range of risky and low productivity activities … exacerbated by poor infrastructure, services and communications … low … education and literacy … and poor health exacerbated by the spread of HIV/AIDS’ (Dorward & Kydd 2004: 346), and concludes that ‘private sector investment has not replaced the parastatal system that aspired to support rural investment’ (ibid.: 352-3). The authors call for a more proactive and more accountable state that seeks to provide livelihood and investment supports to agriculture. Similar hopes for political and policy approaches designed to improve small-scale farming for both economic growth and equity are widespread for Africa (Lahiff & Cousins 2005; May et al. 2004) and more broadly (Griffin et al. 2002). Unlike the Dorward and Kydd paper, all the latter include land tenure reform as a central but not a sole platform for such a renaissance. Problems in the way of achieving this goal include mounting competition and conflict over land, not only in the case discussed here but more broadly (see below), as well as the political will and capacity of governments and their donors to provide the requisite levels of public investment (Dorward & Kydd 2004; Sender & Johnston 2004; Walker 2005).1
There is also a debate about the very feasibility of small-holder farming (based on reformed land tenure plus public investment) as an engine for growth and social justice, which cannot be discussed here but see the special issue of Journal of Agrarian Change 2004, volume 4, 1&2.