Going against the grain

Winner—Drivers of Change Government Award: Dr Bingu wa Mutharika, President of Malawi

Imagining an African continent where a begging hand is not the order of the day inspired Malawian President Dr Bingu wa Mutharika to change the lives of millions with government-subsidised farming.

These days life is looking bright for farmers in a country where 75% of the population depend on agriculture. Mutharika, for his efforts, won this year’s Drivers of Change Award in the government category for working to overcome poverty in Southern Africa.

He is the first sitting president to receive the accolade. ‘Through his work he is fast changing pessimistic global perceptions of Africa,” the judges said.

‘For his remarkable leadership in changing the way public policies are shaped and implemented in our region, the judges recognise President Mutharika as a Driver of Change in Southern Africa and the whole continent Mutharika successfully implemented the agricultural input subsidy programme in 2004 when he was elected head of state. This programme has enabled poor farmers to buy seed and fertiliser at reduced costs.

The result has been that farmers can feed their families while earning an income from sales of surplus crops on local markets. Despite a global recession, Malawi’s economy is still growing as agriculture exports continue to grow.

The United Kingdom’s Economist Intelligence Unit, a research and advisory company, forecast in June that Malawi with its 13.6-million citizens would be the world’s second-fastest growing economy after Qatar. This growth was directly linked to agricultural achievements.

Poverty in Malawi has declined from 58% to 42% in the past five years. Malawi’s 6% annual growth would not have been possible if Mutharika had not gone against the grain of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank’s discouragement of farming subsidies for developing nations. It was a risky period to invest in farming.

Malawi faced severe drought as recently as 2002. If this dark hour had revisited the country, it would have stunted Mutharika’s subsidy initiative. Mutharika has been widely praised for turning poor farmers into self-sustaining providers.

Last year a leading Southern African policy think-tank, the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network, gave the Food Policy Leadership Award to Mutharika.

His farming-subsidy programme is being studied by other governments in the region keen to learn from its success. The programme is credited with having secured another presidential term for Mutharika after general elections were held earlier this year.

His party had held only four seats in the previous National Assembly and after this year’s poll it claimed 144 seats. Mutharika won at least a million votes more than his closest presidential runner-up.

The Drivers of Change judges noted that the president was nominated for the award by a civil society organisation in Malawi ‘which has historically disagreed with the government’s approach”.

‘He has demonstrated visionary yet practical effort, working with all sectors of the society to propel Malawi into a bright new era of hope,” the judges said.

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