‘We are struggling’: Malawi’s farmers hit hard by fertilizer prices

Malawi is ranked one of the poorest globally, and now, soaring fertilizer costs are crippling farmers and traders, pushing residents into economic hardship.

Fred Khanganya, a farmer selling his goods at the Lizulu Market in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital and largest city, has been standing by his pile of cabbage and Irish potatoes for hours, hoping to turn his harvest into hard cash.

But the money isn’t coming. 

A section of the Lizulu Market in Lilongwe, Malawi.Ridwan Karim Dini-Osman/The World

“Business is slow because high fertilizer costs have pushed up the prices of my produce, so people aren’t buying. They’re complaining it’s too expensive,” he said.

Farmer Fred Khanganya is forced to double the prices of his produce due to high fertilizer costs.Ridwan Karim Dini-Osman/The World

Malawi, a nation of 21 million people already ranked among the poorest globally, is now facing a severe cost-of-living crisis due to soaring fertilizer prices.

Unlike some African countries with local fertilizer production capabilities (such as Nigeria, Egypt and Morocco), Malawi relies almost entirely on imported fertilizers. This dependence makes the country vulnerable to global market fluctuations, supply chain disruptions and geopolitical issues like sanctions on Russian fertilizer.

Khanganyah said he can no longer keep up with the cost of fertilizer, especially now that the local currency, the Malawian kwacha, is losing value.

The local currency, the Malawian Kwacha, is losing its value.Ridwan Karim Dini-Osman/The World

“Last year, I was buying 50 kilograms of fertilizer for between $11 to $13, but now, it is going for $45 to $52,” he said.

In Malawi, fertilizer is mainly used for maize and tobacco, key crops driving the economy. In March, the government declared a state of disaster as the country entered its dry season with critically low food stocks.

Khanganya said fertilizers help farmers improve crop resilience in such situations, so these supply challenges are a pain. He doubled his prices to stay afloat.

“That’s the only way I can also survive and keep my children in school,” he said. 

Another farmer, Mai Kamala, a single mother of nine, relies solely on farming to support her family. She said that as a woman, she already faces many challenges with farming, such as getting a loan and rising fertilizer costs, making it even harder for her to succeed.

“I used to afford enough fertilizer for my 2-acre farm, but now, I can barely cover half the field,” she said. “It feels like we’re being pushed out of farming, which is our only lifeline as Malawians.”

At a retail agrochemical shop stacked with various types of fertilizers in labeled bags, attendant Ntombizodwa Siula said they are also feeling the hardship of rising fertilizer costs.

Agrochemical shop attendant Ntombizodwa Siula.Ridwan Karim Dini-Osman/The World

“We’re not inflating prices,” she said. “We’re simply trying to keep up with the rising costs of importing these essential products. Every bag we sell reflects the higher costs we incur to bring these fertilizers to the farmers.”

Maintaining a reliable supply chain in a volatile market requires building buffer stocks and securing reliable suppliers, which come at a premium, Siula said.

Malawi faces significant challenges in its fertilizer economy — similar to many of its southern African neighbors — but often, to a greater extent due to being landlocked and having weaker infrastructure. 

Over the years, the country has tried implementing subsidy programs to make fertilizers affordable for smallholder farmers. However, these programs are prone to issues such as mismanagement and corruption.

Traders rely on local farmers for their stock, but with the high cost of fertilizers, farms are producing less, and the scarcity drives up prices, said Grace Chirambo, who sells vegetables.

She said it is harder for her customers to dig into their pockets for her goods.

Grace Chirambo, a widow and a mother of two, says soaring fertilizer costs are affecting her ability to fend for her family.Ridwan Karim Dini-Osman/The World

At her stand, “These vegetables are from yesterday but until now, this time, they are still here. So, you can see that economically, it is not going well,” she said.

Chirambo, a widow and a mother of two, said that since her sales began to decline, she’s been cutting back on her daily meals to save money to feed her children.

“It is very difficult. But my children’s needs come first. If that means I go hungry, so be it,” she said.

When President Lazarus Chakwera took office in 2020, he promised to ensure prosperity for all Malawians by fighting poverty and attracting foreign investments. Today, over 70% of Malawians live below the poverty line, and more than 4 million are food insecure.

Peter Chawanda, a father of five who works for a car rental company in Lilongwe, said the president has not lived up to expectations.

Peter Chawanda, a father of five who works for a car rental company in Lilongwe, Malawi, said President Chakwera has not lived up to expectations.Ridwan Karim Dini-Osman/The World

“During the election campaign, he said a lot but has failed to fulfill his promises. So, people in Malawi, they are suffering a lot. Not only I, but the whole Malawi,” he said.

Chawanda said he usually circles the market for about 30 minutes looking for food that he can afford because prices have gone through the roof since his last visit. Now, he’s contemplating taking proteins off his list.

“We can’t manage to buy things. We are afraid to eat meat. We can’t afford to buy meat. Meat is very expensive. Even fish, if we have to buy fish, it is a problem,” he said.

Last year, Chakwera suspended all international travel for himself and his government to save money, cut fuel allowances for senior officials by 50% and ordered ministers abroad to return home. The government also secured a $175 million bailout to drive economic reforms. 

Simplex Chithyola Banda, the country’s finance minister, said the economy will soon recover.

“Traditionally, tobacco has been our major Forex earner, but now, we’ve also explored carbon financing and marketing as an area where we can generate more resources,” Chithyola Banda said. “We’ve also explored minerals in this country. Malawi has the largest deposits of rutile globally.”

Simplex Chithyola Banda, Malawi’s finance minister, told The World that Malawi’s economy should recover soon.Ridwan Karim Dini-Osman/The World

By tapping into its rutile reserves, Chithyola Banda said that Malawi has the potential to strengthen its economy, create jobs and improve livelihoods. He also said the government is looking at homegrown solutions to address the need for fertilizer.

“We are moving towards having our own fertilizer production in this country so that we can reduce the costs of input,” he said. “So, we are looking at fertilizers produced from locally available materials and also supporting research and development of alternative fertilizers that can be manufactured domestically.”

Malawi relies almost entirely on imported fertilizers for its agriculture-based economy.Ridwan Karim Dini-Osman/The World

Banda said he believes the country could achieve middle-income status in the next two to three years.

Back at the Lizulu Market, Peter Chawanda said that these long-term measures are promising, but they are like seeds planted on rocky soil — they may bear fruit, but it might be too little too late.

“We need solutions that are quick,” he said, adding, “Because if this situation persists, for sure, we are going to die.”

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