Oxfam's cash trickle goes a long way in Malawi

Oxfam’s money transfer scheme in Malawi gives vulnerable citizens—who have first-hand experience of the effects of climate change—access to basic foodstuffs. The NGO’s regional media and communications coordinator, Nicole Johnston, visited the country and highlights why governments should invest in small-scale producers.

They file into the church, some bent over walking sticks, others with babies slung on their backs, all poor.

In the dim light of the church, its walls decorated with hand-painted frescoes, they sit in the pews and wait to collect the identity cards that will allow them to receive their small allowance from Oxfam’s cash ­transfer scheme.

The decision to hand small sums of cash to vulnerable people in Chitimbe village, in the Balaka district of southern Malawi, instead of trucking in food aid, was based on several considerations.

Flooding the market with food can distort local prices, while the cash injection is designed to stimulate the market and help local producers.

A line of women arrives and sets up shop behind the church. Wrapped in colourful chitenje, each woman carries a basket on her head filled with foodstuffs for sale—from cassava and groundnuts to thobwa, a sweet gruel.

Most people in the area live below the international $2 a day poverty threshold, meaning there is often no food in the house.

Poor nutrition affects children’s ability to concentrate at school, while chronic malnutrition can stunt their mental and physical development.

In addition, Malawi has one of the world’s highest adult HIV prevalence rates.
Antiretrovirals cannot be taken on an empty stomach and people living with HIV need to eat more regularly.

The cash given to beneficiaries of the scheme is minuscule by the standards of the developed world. Each person in a registered household gets the equivalent of $3 a month - less than the price of a Starbucks latte. But it ensures that he or she can afford maize, cooking oil and pulses.

As well as food, it gives poor people choice: some use a little of the money for non-food items such as soap.

The cash transfer scheme, run in collaboration with a local bank and using smart cards, gives people the opportunity to open a bank account and save money, a rarity in remote rural areas.

Simple food preferences that few can afford
The villagers from Chitimbe in Malawi have simple food preferences, but even these are often not available or are too expensive for them to buy.
They describe their favourite foods:

Janet Zamadunga (30)
What is your favourite food?
I like nsima (maize porridge) with pumpkin leaves and chambo (fish).

Is there food you would like, but can’t afford?
I’d like to eat rice, but can’t afford it. Rice costs 8 000 kwacha ($53) for 50kg, compared with maize, which is 1 500 Kwacha ($10). Rice is a luxury. I like yoghurt and cool drinks like Sobo (a local fizzy drink in various flavours), but I can’t afford them. The only time we buy Sobo is to take to a patient in hospital.

What is your favourite dish?
As a special treat, I make chicken and chips. I peel Irish potatoes, slice them and fry them in hot oil on the fire.
I serve it with chicken and a salad made of tomato, cabbage and onion. But I make that only on special occasions because oil is so expensive.

Is there any food you would not eat?
Oh yes! I went to town and I saw some people on TV and they were eating these things called “spaghetti”. Why would anyone eat that? It looks just like worms! I also saw sausages on TV. They look really funny.

Edson James Kamba (69)
What is your favourite food?
Rice with beans and meat.

Is there food you would like, but can’t afford?
I’d like to eat rice, but it is very expensive. The price of food like rice and meat keeps going up. I would like some milk to drink but I can’t buy it. I used to have Stork [margarine] and jam with bread but now I can’t afford it. I also wish I could have eggs and cheese. We buy a very small amount of sugar to put in our tea.

What is your favourite recipe?
Every day I eat nsima and pumpkin leaves. Sometimes we buy usipa (dried fish) when we have money.

Is there any food you would not eat?
No, when I see people on TV they are always eating very good things like meat, chicken and eggs. So when I see them on TV, I say: “If I was there, I would have those things.”

Rosemary Sickochi (60)
What is your favourite food?
When I was young, wild mushrooms used to grow everywhere, great big ones. We would wash them and cook them with salt and pounded groundnuts to make a dish called bowa wotendera. But we don’t find those anymore.

Is there any food you would like, but can’t afford?
No, I just miss the wild mushrooms.

What is your favourite recipe?
My husband catches field mice and we boil them with water and salt. You need about five for each person to make a good meal.

Is there food you would not eat?
I once visited an area where they cook the mice and add groundnut flour. That doesn’t make sense.

Lamion Kwezalamba (32)
What is your favourite food?
I eat nsima and vegetables every day, so that is my favourite.

Is there any food you would like, but can’t afford?
Sugar in tea is a problem because it’s too expensive. I like apples, but they’re imported from South Africa and are too expensive. It costs 70 kwacha (US46c) for just one apple!

What is your favourite recipe?
I don’t cook. I still live with my mom and my grandma who is 97, but she is very strong. She still works and they cook for us.

Is there any food you would not eat?
In Chikwawa district they eat small crocodiles, but I can’t do that! Lots of Chinese people work there and they also like eating crocodiles.

‘I really miss papaya’
Local people in Chitimbe village, in the Balaka district of southern Malawi, describe their growing food insecurity:

  • Simon Dautala (55)
    “I live alone after my wife passed away.

    “I survive by doing ganyu [casual labour] in other people’s fields. The best part of getting cash is that after I have bought maize, I have a little left over to buy soap and maybe some fish to go with my nsima (maize porridge, the staple food). I eat twice a day.

    “I really miss eating papaya, sweet potatoes and bananas. We used to grow them here, but the weather has changed and the plants don’t grow well any more.”

  • Edith Msosa (23)
    “My mum is very old and she only has me to help her. I am married and have two daughters.

    “I joined this cash transfer project because the rains are very poor. We can’t grow enough food to last the whole year. Before, the food used to last from the harvest in April until December. But now it’s finished by August.

    “The old people tell us that the rains used to be more regular and they could grow a lot of food on our land.

    “Now the rain is unpredictable. If we plant and it doesn’t rain, the seeds die in the ground. If they have sprouted and the rains don’t come, then the seedlings get burned by the sun.

    “The project helps me to buy extra food like usipa (small dried fish), cassava, mangoes, salt and soap. If it gave us more money, I would save it to buy a goat and breed more goats. That way, I would know that if one of the children got sick, I could sell a goat to pay the hospital.”

  • Flora Kadewere (30)
    “I’m married with two children, and I’m HIV positive. We used to survive on my husband’s charcoal burning and my ganyu.

    “This cash helps me to buy food so I can work in my own fields instead of having to do ganyu in other people’s fields. Now we can sometimes eat three times a day.
    “My eldest daughter is 12 and she is also affected by this HIV, so she gets shingles which affects her eyes. Now I can take her to the hospital in Balaka to get treatment. I can also afford transport to go to the clinic to fetch my antiretrovirals.

    “There’s a school fund that is saving for things like a new roof and I’m proud that at last I can also contribute 50 kwacha (US33c) to help the children.

    “I stopped school in standard seven, so my prayer is for my children to finish secondary school and have a better life.”

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