Mostly rural Malawi's emphasis on farming pays rich dividends

``Good morning bwana, are you the manager?'' Mike Stapleton asked a lanky Malawian wearing a blue bush hat. Mr. Stapleton, formerly a white farmer from Zimbabwe, stopped his pickup under the gum trees and peered at the farm workers.

``Of course,'' replied the Malawian, grinning.

``Good,'' said Stapleton climbing out of the van. Behind him lay a vast field of tobacco. Groups of women were harvesting the green leaves, placing them in piles at the front of each row before taking them to nearby sheds for curing.

The Zimbabwean gestured to the sign on the door of his truck. ``As you can see, we're from the Tobacco Association of Malawi. This here is my assistant, Mr. Jasper Meke-banda. We'd like to ask some questions and, if we may, take a few samples.''

This is Stapleton's standard opening when he and his team of trainees tour Malawi's 3,500 large- and small-scale tobacco farms to monitor production. Then Jasper, a bright, young agricultural graduate, steps forward to take over, leaving Stapleton to stand back and occasionally interject with a suggestion.

Tobacco, Malawi's No. 1 cash crop and a vital hard-currency earner, accounts for roughly 90 percent of the country's exports, together with tea, sugar, and cotton. As with other commodity organizations, the tobacco association hires experienced expatriate advisers to improve production and eventually hand management over to Malawian understudies like Jasper.

At the same time, Malawi seeks to reduce its dependency on a small number of products susceptible to price fluctuations by crop diversification. But it is not easy. As part of its antismoking campaign, the World Health Organization has urged governments such as Malawi's to find substitutes for tobacco, say Malawian officials.

``But when they sent out experts to suggest other crops, all they could come up with were strawberries,'' commented one West European economist.

Nevertheless, this small, landlocked nation stands out as an unusual example of growth and self-sufficiency. On a continent often better known for its famines, misguided development, and wrecked economies, Malawi has managed to raise its per capita gross national product by an average of almost 6 percent a year.

As Western observers point out, Malawi's farsighted emphasis on farming, since independence 22 years ago, has helped meet its own food requirements. It has also used agricultural exports to finance development. In particular, Malawi has stressed the need for solid infrastructures, expanding communications systems, and relatively reliable extension services -- livestock breeding, seed, and fertilizer sectors of the economy.

``I like to describe Malawi as a potentially poor country, considering its meager resources,'' says a West European ambassador. ``But, what Malawi has achieved is truly impressive. Zambia and Tanzania [Malawi's neighbors to the west and north] have for years talked about their socialist goals and policies and made a mess of things. Malawi simply shut up and got on with it.''

Much of the credit lies with Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the country's pragmatic and conservative ``Life-President'' -- unchallenged in his autocratic rule for more than two decades.

``By making the individual farmer the focus of development efforts, he's shown a far better understanding of the African than many of his counterparts,'' says a senior Western aid official. ``President Banda has provided the farmers with the incentives to produce.''

Dr. Banda recognized the limitation of Malawi when it gained independence, observers say. Unlike his neighbors, he did not seek to industrialize overnight or to favor urban elites at the expense of the rural population. Instead, Banda decided to concentrate on three basic objectives: food, shelter, and clothing.

The essence of Malawi's agricultural success lies with its 1 million peasant farmers. It is they who are largely responsible for making the country self-sufficient in food as well as able to export maize to other parts of Africa during the 1984 drought.

Another reason for the country's success, agricultural officials argue, is the predictability of its extension services. Seeds and fertilizers are readily available although nothing is granted free. Operating through cooperative farmers' clubs, small landholders must vie for loans based on their performance. According to officials, farmers are serious about their obligations, with 95 percent repaying their debts.

Furthermore, the small landholder, whose average holding is four or five acres, is guaranteed world market prices at the start of every season by the state marketing board, the Agriculture Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC). He also knows that he will be paid cash-in-hand rather than with promissory notes when the trucks from ADMARC's more than 1,000 temporary rural markets arrive to pick up his harvest.

``Farmers here are extremely price-responsive,'' said a Western aid coordinator. ``They'll tear up whole fields of macadamia nuts or whatever, if they can get a better price for something else.''

The pricing system has almost worked too well. Malawi is now faced with an overproduction of maize, which ADMARC will be hard-pressed to buy, store, or sell to other countries. Malawi has already been forced to finance construction of silos for storage of up to 180,000 tons of reserve grain. ``This has saddled Malawi with severe debt problems,'' said another aid official.

But this is only one aspect of the challenges facing Malawi. In 1979, Malawi began to suffer economic setbacks. Drought, declining international commodity prices, and closure of vital rail links through Mozambique by guerrillas in that country have been grinding away at the once growing economy. There also have been cases of mismanagement and poor investment.

In 1981, the government adopted a two-pronged program designed to reduce balance-of-payments deficits and to diversify production. Restructuring the economy, providing more incentives to small holders and private enterprise, and reorganizing government and parastatal operations have produced favorable results, say World Bank sources. (A ``parastatal operation'' is a kind of joint governmental-commercial enterprise common in much of Africa.)

Most observers say Malawi has the potential to quadruple its agricultural output. Some say Malawi has now reached the point where it needs to expand into small agriculture-related industries. However, there is a consensus that Malawi should continue with its gradual development while living within its means.

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