Southern Malawi’s dry, crusty fields used to be waist-high with corn. But two consecutive years of low rainfall have meant scarce harvests and have forced farmers to change just about everything they know about farming.
“This is one of the worst droughts I have seen in the past 10 years,” said Elisha Kapalamula, World Vision’s emergency response manager in Malawi, who grew up in the Southern African country.
If the drought continues and farmers feel like they have no other options, they will move from rural areas into the cities in search of work, splitting families apart, he said by phone from the capital Lilongwe.
“Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world,” said Michelle Nunn, president and CEO of CARE USA, who visited Malawi recently to assess El Nino’s effects of repeated floods and droughts.
In the country of about 18 million people, more than one-third are in danger of not having enough food, she said.
“When you’re already living in poverty … and the rains don’t come, you keep thinking that they will come,” she said. Without pre-existing resources, the challenges are much greater.
Groups like CARE, World Vision and the World Food Program are providing basic food supplies and working with Malawi’s government to help train farmers in business and how to increase their yield. And in some cases, even switching the types of crops that they grow.
For example, CARE is helping farmers move from tobacco — a generally preferred cash crop — to more drought-resistant soy beans. The switchover meets with some resistance at first, said Nunn.
“If you’re a farmer living on the edge of survival, and somebody says, ‘Why don’t you do everything different,’ we would all feel uncertain about that,” she said. “But CARE has put in place pilot projects, so people can see for themselves what the yield is and how to do it.”
World Vision and CARE also help villages organize savings groups with mostly women as members, which enables them to scale up their small businesses once they get going.
CARE also enlists women to demonstrate the effectiveness of changing crops. “[When] we were able to significantly increase the yield the women were bringing in, it was amazing how quickly their husbands were willing to shift,” Nunn said.