Covid-19 Disrupts the Livelihoods of Malawi’s Farming Families

Covid-19 restrictions in Malawi have inadvertently had an adverse affect on the demand for onions, and thus have had a devastation effect on the livelihoods of the country’s onion farmers.


Words and Photographs by Deogracias Benjamin Kalima

Farmers in Malawi Affected by Covid-19 Restrictions

Nobody will take away the farming passion possessed by Kenson Mulapula, of the Kapeni area outside Malawi’s commercial hub of Blantyre. He knows too well that for him to be able to provide for his family, and perhaps one day to acquire the properties of his dreams, he needs to work hard in his agricultural activities.

Covid-19 restrictions in Malawi: Man standing in green field
Kenson Malupula

Through farming, Mulapula has continuously managed to make his family food-secure all year round while most of households in his village need food assistance during the food-lean period from December to March. He has also managed to construct a good house, by Malawian standards. The 55-year-old father of four says apart from relying on rain-fed crop farming, by which he grows the staple crop food maize, he and most farmers in his area also do small scale commercial growing. He grows onions and tomatoes, which he says cumulatively earn him about Malawi Kwacha 400,000 (US$570) per annum.

“I have never had a formal employment in my life,” says Mulapula, “as from the start of my adulthood, I have always been a farmer. Farming has always paid my bills.”

This year, with plans to buy a water pump and construct a concrete water tank to assist him in his agricultural activities, Mulapula grew onions on larger scale than ever before. If there is a cash crop that farmers around the area rely on, then onion tops the list. With onion farming, over the years farmers have made profits which have elevated them and their families out of abject poverty. While some have been able to construct better houses and pay for their children’s school fees, others have bought motorcycles which they are using as taxis, thereby supplementing their income and improving their living standards even further.

Mulapula sowed and planted onions on a half acre of land. He took good care of it–investing labour and inputs, and hoping he would earn much more than the MK400,000 he had earned the previous season on a smaller piece of land. And he says this season’s onion crops are better in terms of quality and size, a fact that further raised his hopes of a good return on his investment.

Despite having a good quality of onions, however, now that selling time has come, the commodity prices have fallen from MK400 (US$0.55) per bucket to an all time low of MK50 (US$0.07), representing a loss of value of about 80 percent. The trend in market demand is likewise discouraging. This has left Mulapula and fellow farmers with a dilemma as to what they will do with the current season’s crops.

“I am really devastated with how the market prices of the commodity have turned out,” he says. “Surely prices have never been this bad before.”

Man tending to green plants
Mulapula in his onion garden

Mulapula says that, low prices aside, the onion buyers are not coming in the numbers that they used to, because with schools and colleges closed, and fast food outlets closing or scaling down operations, the market for this particular commodity has been greatly diminished.

“I did not have an idea that Corona Virus effects would hit us farmers in the way it has. Little did I know that the pandemic would [affect] all my dreams and expectations? Now with schools and most working places closing or scaling down operations, our commodity has been rendered useless. How will I recover my investment with this situation?” he wonders.

He explains that, unlike other readily consumable crops, the onion is different; without the usual channels of fast food restaurants or college cafeterias, no one will consume onions in the magnitude that the farmers of his area now need to sell. In the end, he thinks this year’s farming yield is all but lost as he sees no greenlight at the end of the day. He thinks this will worsen the poverty levels in most farming households, in his local area in particular and in Malawi in general, as farmers will not earn a sufficient income with which to improve their lives, while others will be caught in loans which they took before venturing into such farming ventures and had hoped to pay back after a good day at the market.

Another onion farmer in the area, Lonny Thomuson, bemoans the low commodity prices, saying that this has shattered most farmers’ dreams of acquiring their needs and wants. A divorced mother of three, and breadwinner for her family of five, she has enough maize stocked to support her household until the next harvest time in April next year, but she fears how she will subsequently provide for her dependants’ needs. She had hoped to venture into a small scale business using the money she expected to earn from her investment in onions.

Woman smiling in field
Lonny Thomuson

“The prevailing low prices of the onion commodity will negatively affect me and my household,” says Thomuson, “as I will not be able to provide my children with adequate needs like clothes and school materials. It will be even harder for me to earn back some money I borrowed to buy some inputs like fertilizers.”

Others Affected by Covid-19 Restrictions in Malawi

COVID-19 has affected not only small scale farmers, as even some sections of the working class are faced with its ramifications. Mathews Mususa is a secondary school teacher in the private sector and says that, for the two months since the suspension of classes due to the restrictions to prevent the spread of the pandemic, he has not received any salary. His employers claim they don’t have the money, since their institution relies on students’ tuition for operations and salaries.

“Since the schools were closed down on 23 March due to the Government of Malawi’s COVID-19 prevention measures I only got the March salary,” laments the teacher, “but for the subsequent months, I have not had any pay up to now.”

Mususa says there is nothing he can do. He understands the position of the proprietors of the education institution he works for, and hopes the pandemic will be dealt with quickly so that he, and colleagues in the same situation as him, can return to work and start earning a living again.

While teachers endure unpaid salaries, students have their own sad tales as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time the school classes were being suspended, national primary school leaving exams were just about to be administered, with all being set for 25-27 March, while secondary school leaving exams were scheduled for the whole month of July.

Charity M’bawa is one of the primary school leaving certificate candidates, and she says the suspension of school classes and final exams has left her and fellow candidates disappointed, considering all their hardwork in preparing for the examinations.

“I had been studying hard all along knowing I had exams in March,” she says, “but now four months into the COVID-19 induced suspension, I don’t know when will classes resume let alone me and friends will seat for the final exams.”

Measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 are causing delays and disruptions to transport and logistics services too. In a country where a majority of the population rely on public transport to move from one point to another, measures to contain the spread of corona virus included the reduction of passengers per seat of a minibus from three to two so that there is adequate space between passengers. However, this meant the commuter minibus owners had to raise the transport fares to make up for the missing passenger. This has resulted in all of the routes having their fares raised by about 50 percent, thereby hitting passengers hard.

Nellie Kapinga–who works as a shop assistant in the city of Blantyre but resides in Machinjiri township, 20 kilometres away, and commutes to and from work six days a week–complains that her already meagre salary is now stretched with the increment of transport costs and other basic necessities. And despite the fact that her boss has not closed the shop due to the pandemic, she fears he could retrench her and other workers due to losses as the sales have gone down in the last two months.

Other shops and companies have already sent their workers on indefinite, unpaid leave because they could not sustain their operations amid the pandemic.

With no or little economic cushions to the majority Malawians, most of whom live below the poverty line, the adverse impact of COVID-19 will likely exacerbate the already dire situations of most Malawians, the majority of whom earn less than US$2 a day.

Rise of the Pandemic in Malawi

Currently (as of Wednesday 16 September, 2020), Malawi has so far recorded 5,701 cases of COVID-19 with 178 deaths. There has been an alarming increase in cases over recent months, with cases jumping from only about a hundred in April. This according to health experts was due to misinformation that was fuelled by the political tension in the country in the aftermath of a court ruling that nullified the 2019 presidential elections’ results and ordered a new poll within 150 days. While the then government of Peter Mutharika planned a 21-day nationwide lockdown, which was to start on 18 April, a human rights organization by the name of Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) went to court to challenge the government on the issue and the courts granted them an injunction stopping the lockdown, arguing the government had not yet provided cushions to those in need that would assist them during the lockdown.

With political campaign meetings and rallies in progress where issues of preventive measures were completely ignored, it is believed the pandemic found a fertile ground to spread such that by the time the political campaigns were over in late June, the number of infected people had risen up to over 2000. Among those in Malawi who have died with the disease are a lawmaker, Cornelius Mwalwanda, who succumbed to COVID-19 in July.

However, of late due to the surge in cases and an increase in awareness of the pandemic, members of the general public have been taking COVID-19 preventive measures seriously by such practices as: the wearing of face masks in public, the washing of hands with soap frequently, and avoiding handshakes (which are a norm in Malawi society). Most offices, shops and markets have hand washing facilities.

Covid-19 restrictions in Malawi: Blue plastic tubs under tap spouts for handwashing in a sand-floored marketplace
A handwashing facility in a marketplace, a key feature of Covid-19 restrictions in Malawi

The new president, Lazarous Chakwera who won under a coalition of nine parties has said his government is doing all it can to contain the further spread of the pandemic. This week, the government of Malawi gazetted a law that makes wearing face masks in all public offices compulsory, in an attempt to curb the spread of the deadly disease.

The pandemic is expected to lead to economic losses in Africa, with the Economic Commission for Africa expecting economies to shrink by 2.3 percent. The World Food Programme has warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could cause one of the worst food crises since World War II. It predicts a doubling of the number of people going hungry, with more than half of them in Sub-Saharan Africa.

For Mulapula, all he hopes is for COVID-19 to end so that the country’s economy can reopen and livelihoods be restored after the devastating pandemic.

“I hope the pandemic is not here to stay. Otherwise, we need the economy back on its feet so that farmers like me will have our livelihoods restored,” he optimistically sums up.

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