/ 18 March 2023

Russia’s fertiliser gift for Malawi comes with a catch

Malawi Fertiliser Russia
Charm offensive: Women shell maize in Malembo village in the Lilongwe district. When handing over fertiliser to Malawi, Russia’s ambassador suggested an alliance. Photo: Amos Gumulira/Getty Images

Peter Chapola’s maize crop in Malawi’s central district is almost ready for harvest. But his family is hungry and has started eating the green mielies. It will still be weeks before they can dry the maize to make flour, the staple food in Malawi.

The season just before harvest is called the lean season for a reason. Food is scarce in an agrarian society. And agriculture makes up some 80% of all jobs and 30% of Malawi’s economy, according to the World Bank.

It was only last week that Chapola got a bag of fertiliser from the government as part of its programme to support the poor and vulnerable with farming resources.

“It’s too late,” he says. “I will keep it and perhaps use it next year.”

Farmers like Chapola might also sell the fertiliser to get through the lean season and then have to buy more fertiliser later, at a higher price.

For Malawi, the fertiliser shortage started before Russia’s invasion. The government had started cracking down on fertiliser cartels, according to Betchane Tcherene, an economist at the Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences. “While they were doing that, the war in Ukraine disrupted the supply chains.”

With exports from Ukraine cut and Russia under sanctions, Malawi was caught unprepared, and over the past few years, the cost of fertiliser has more than doubled. 

And the world faces a shortage of phosphorus — which threatens food security globally — because of overuse of phosphate fertiliser. The phosphate, together with sewage, washes into water bodies causing algal blooms that threaten aquatic life. In addition, phosphorus in large quantities is found in only a few countries — Morocco and western Sahara, China and then Algeria. 

Moscow saw an opportunity for a diplomatic charm offensive. Malawi this week received 20 000 tons of fertiliser. A total 260 000 tonnes will be distributed across the African continent.

Handing over the fertiliser in Lilongwe, Russian ambassador Nikolai Krasilnikov made it clear that the gift came with expectations. 

Bemoaning sanctions on his country, Krasilnikov said: “We are very confident that it’s high time we stopped the blockade on Russian goods and fertiliser. We are ready to support the developing countries with the agriculture products but we need your voice to support us.”

He suggested that countries should help Russia “for the benefit of building strategic alliances” in Africa.

He further announced that President Vladimir Putin has invited Malawi’s president to the Russian-Africa summit to be held in St Petersburg. He said Russian health professionals were also ready to assist Malawi in fighting its cholera outbreak.

Yet Malawi has been noticeably outspoken in its condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine, and in its voting in support of United Nations resolutions condemning Putin’s belligerence. Russia also has no real history with Malawi, which aligned itself with the West during the Cold War.

And on a macro level the free fertiliser offered is little more than small change.

Nic Cheeseman, of the Democracy in Africa think-tank, said the power play “will work to an extent” but then countries will look at how much money it represents.

“Russia seems to have limited resources, so it cannot back the fertiliser up with greater investments in other areas. 

“It will not displace the US and China as the most influential international partners in Africa.”

Malawi is also still heavily dependent on foreign donor support; World Bank data show this amounted to a billion dollars in 2020, with the economy creating seven billion dollars. Money from Western donors is crucial for services such as education, healthcare, energy supply and others.

Russia’s fertiliser is too late for this season, and too little to nourish the hopes of a new friendship. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.