People and ploughs: from Scotland to Malawi

I come from a long line of farm labourers – men and women – and I grew up on a farm where my father worked as a ploughman and dairyman, so the hard work of farming is part of who I am.

Here in Scotland, NFU Scotland estimate 67,000 people work in agriculture. In Malawi everyone is a farmer. The majority of the 18 million population have to grow their own food: maize or cassava for carbohydrates and greens and groundnuts for protein. What they can’t eat, they sell to buy the basics of life – salt, soap and school fees. Even the President grows maize.

This podcast, the seventh in a great series called People to People looks at the importance of farming to Malawi’s daily life and its economy. It was a delight to take part. And I examine Malawi’s agriculture industry in my book The Spirit of Malawi, available here. Here’s a taster.

Malawi is a nation of farmers. Almost everyone, from the President to the poorest villager, has a plot of land which they cultivate. Agriculture defines Malawi. 

Not everyone grows food in Malawi,’ laughs Gifted Galimoto (43), a porter at Bwaila Hospital in Lilongwe. ‘But almost everyone. Me, I have to grow maize and beans, it is the only reliable way I can have food for my family. The prices in the shops go up too often, so I grow maize. And beans that I can sell to pay for school fees.’ 

Just as the Galimoto family depends on farming for food and cash, so does Malawi. Agriculture accounts for 27 per cent of the country’s GDP, over 90 per cent of rural households own or cultivate their own land, and the one millionpoorest people grow food, not to sell, but simply to survive. 

Two crops are the mainstay of Malawi’s agriculture industry. Tobacco, on which the country’s economy is built, and maize, which sustains life. But both are under threat. Maize from climate shocks and pests like the fall army worm. Tobacco from declining global demand. 

‘I will put it in this way, the slowdown in consumption in rich countries has affected the production volume, not only volume, but income, as the price has dropped,’ explains Felix Thole, Chief Executive of Tama Farmers Trust, formerly the Tobacco Association of Malawi, which was formed in 1929. 

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