LILONGUE -- The market-place is busy and the stalls are full of local produce in Lunzu, a trading centre on the edge of Blantyre in southern Malawi. Traders shout out the prices of maize harvested in the central region of the country, sacks of beans and pigeon peas are sheltered under canvas awnings to provide shade from the sun, and small piles of tiny, silvery, dried fish from Lake Malawi are lined up for sale to those who can afford to pay for the protein and added flavour they can bring to the daily meal.
But these are lean times for the farming communities that work the fields around Lunzu. They are in the grip of the “hungry season,” the period between the planting of new crops and the arrival of the next harvest, which is not due until March next year.
Forty-one year old Hannah Chikaloni is one of them. Married with three children, she speaks of the struggles she’s faced over the past year when erratic rainfall devastated her crops and brought hunger to her village.
Crops died in drought
“After the first rains, we planted as we always do, but it wasn’t long before we had a drought which burned the whole crop,” she says, fingering a pink plastic rosary necklace as she talks. “It took so long for the next rains to come that it was too late for us to replant. We ran out of food and we had no help until WFP came in.”
“Maize bran is not all that nutritious, and normally we use it to feed livestock,” says Edward Chingeni from Save the Children, “But this year, because the maize prices have gone so high, people have been forced to eat maize bran.”
Working with the Malawi government, local partner Save the Children, and the mobile phone provider, Airtel, WFP has launched a programme that aims to address this problem of access to food. Hungry farmers are being introduced to a mobile phone banking system that will deliver the cash they need to spend on food at the market.
Food unaffordable for poor
“In many places where we have a surplus of food, the problem is not that there’s no food in the locality, but that poor people cannot afford it,” says WFP Senior Programme Officer, Charles Inwani. “In a situation like this in Malawi, where the country has been producing a surplus of food for a while, having money in their pockets at least enables people to reach it.”
More than 100,000 people are participating in the mobile cash transfer programme, which is being funded by UKAID. Each will be provided with low-cost mobile phones and they will receive monthly text messages that entitle them to collect cash from Airtel agents.
And it’s not just the farming community that stands to benefit. In Lunzu market, traders are also happy that more people will have the cash they need to buy local produce.
“With this cash programme, it will put us in a better position to make a sale,” says maize trader, Mesa Besta. “We have enough maize to sell to the entire community and in my warehouse I have fifty bags of stock.”