Chu nibbles at an unripe mango.The hard chunks quickly disappear in his tiny mouth to later end up in his round belly, distended by hunger. His fragile five-year-old body seems even smaller when he stands in front of the dark green meter-high tea plants that cover a field behind his back. It is February in the Mulanje region in the South of Malawi. Every centimeter of land seems to be covered by growing crops. The next local market, a one-hour walk away, is bulging with vegetables, fruits and dried fish. Still, Chu is chronically hungry. He does not run as much as other children his age and even smiling sometimes is hard for him. Often, a small portion of Nsima, a white watery maize porridge, is his only meal.
Half of Malawi children under 5 are like Chu – stunted: too small for their age. His organs and brain capacity may not develop properly. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 842 million people are undernourished worldwide – more than the population of the U.S. and Europe together. Every six seconds a child is dying due to the consequences of undernourishment, a quarter of them in Sub-Saharan Africa. They don't make it to the headlines or evening news. Thankfully the times of disastrous famines that alarmed the world society, like Ethiopia in the 80s, are over. Today’s hunger is quiet. It is a daily misery in a world of abundance, hidden in regions like Mulanje, far from electricity and Internet. Despite horror scenarios of a growing world population and upcoming food shortage, today we have more than enough. The existing food is enough to feed the world’s population twice, the FAO scientists calculate. Why is Chu hungry then?
Chu doesn't know that far away from his home, in a town called Chicago, traders do business on the back of world hunger. Chu also doesn't know that a growing middle class in developing countries has started eating more meat. Their cows, crowded together in monstrous sterile steel buildings, consume more maize and soy substitutes a day than Chu in a month. He does not know about fertilizer subsidies and government corruption and he does not know that his Nsima can be used as bio-fuel to make cars more ecological.
The quest for an answer begins with the business of hunger.
For Chu and the rest of 16 million Malawians, Nsima is sacred. This white porridge made of water and maize meal is the most common food in Southern Africa. In Zimbabwe they call it Sadza, in Kenya Ugali and Meliepap in South Africa. It fills up the stomach, kills the hunger and gives energy: 450 calories per serving, it's high in iron and zinc, but no vitamins. A Malawian saying goes "Chimanga ndi moyo" which translates to 'maize is life'. For 900 million people around the world maize is the primary food: life.
Today the price of life is unstable.
The price of life is negotiated upon every day at the Chicago Board of Trade. Originally founded in 1814 to help American farmers sell their future crops, it is now the world’s biggest market for natural resources.
For a long time, demand and supply determined the price, like on a local market. Since 2006 though, the Board is open to mere financial investors, and thus speculators. Traders predict the direction of asset prices, like maize, wheat or coffee. Then they contract to buy or sell the asset in the future at a price that (if their prediction was correct) will yield a profit. Big financial institution, hedge funds and banks 'play' with food and promise their costumers high profits.
They know the world's food demand is increasing.
The FAO calculates that by 2050, the world will produce 37 billion chickens per year. The demand comes mostly from the five fastest developing countries: the BRICS. Half a billion new middle-class consumers from Rio to Beijing want to enjoy the luxury of eating meat, as Westerners have done for the last century.Their demand has already increased by almost five percent every year within the last 50 years. Until 2050 the global demand for livestock will increase by 70%.
Before the steak ends up on a plate, the animal has to eat. 20 to 30 percent of feed today consists of high-energy concentrate such as soy, maize and other cereals. The Meat Atlas 2014 calculates that while there are big differences from region to region, worldwide 57 percent of the cereal output is fed to animals. That is nearly 800 million tons.
Meanwhile, in Europe and America, huge meat scandals and the obsession with a healthy lifestyle have brought about a change of mentality in consumers. The meat consumption is slightly declining. Nevertheless, people in developed countries use maize to fuel their cars: one eighth of the global maize production today ends up as ethanol in tanks.
For people in Sub-Saharan Africa, like Chu’s parents, this is unimaginable. 80 percent of the grain crops are eaten here; animals eat the dirt between the market stands, cars would never meet the eco-standards of a European city. Still the population can be affected by global trends. The worldwide demand for maize keeps up the prices, while conflicts and severe drought in harvesting areas can bring panic to the market. In 2011, when the US notified extremely bad crops due to extreme temperatures, the maize prize climbed to an all-time high of 310 US$ per ton. Future-bond brokers in Chicago were very pleased by high return rates; maize farmers in America and Brazil achieved record profits, but the poor in Sub-Saharan Africa could not feed their children anymore. In Kenya, that does not produce enough maize, large parts of the population became food insecure.
The global maize price serves as an indicator for how much Chu’s parents can buy on their local market. They both work on a commercial tea-farm as pickers. Their monthly pay stays the same, if the prices rise (and inflation gets out of control) they cannot afford enough maize to feed Chu and his siblings. Even though they probably have never heard of Chicago or the BRICS, first clues to answer why Chu’s stomach is bloated by hunger lay in these places.
Monsanto: Making money with maize
A bit closer to Chu’s home, big companies have already understood how to make money with maize. Winstone Phiri, a maize farmer from North Malawi, 500 kilometers from Mulanje, is making profit from it. He hasn’t become a millionaire over night, but he wears a white shirt and suit trousers, shoes cover his feet. Something that is alien to Chu’s family.
Seven years ago, Monsanto - the multi-billion dollar transnational corporation that produces fertilizers and genetically-manipulated seeds - advised Phiri to get a loan from Malawi’s biggest micro-finance bank to buy seeds and fertilizers. Since then he has a licensing contract with Monsanto. He buys their hybrid seeds, grows and harvests the maize, then returns the seeds to repay his loans. He is not allowed to keep the maize and must buy new Monsanto seeds every year. For him the concept seems to work:
"I have one son who is in secondary education now, and two finishing 3rd form," he proudly tells.
This year he takes his seventh loan: five million Malawi Kwacha (11.000 US $) to buy more seeds and expand his fields. Monsanto promotes farmers in Malawi to see maize as a "business". In other words - to buy their promising drought-resistant hybrid seeds and fertilizers. A nightmare for environmental activists who have largely documented the destructive effects of genetically modified crops on the fragile Sub-Saharan soil. They also fear that farmers just get into a new wheel of dependency on technologies and poisonous herbicides:
"All this boils down to the dreadful result, that is, Monsanto controlling much of the world’s food supply. Control of food supply leads to control of people," Kamalakar Duvvuru, a famous activist, writes on his blog.
For Chu it means that in the future small-scale farmers around him will struggle even more to compete with high-tech crops, and a big company may control which Nsima he eats.
Malawi: The miracle of Africa?
Winstone Phiri is a success story. One that fits into the narrative Pedro Sanchez, Director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center at Columbia University, tells. It is the story of increasing crop yields in Sub-Saharan Africa - the story of 17 countries that have already achieved the Hunger Millennium Development Goal in 2015, Sanchez helped design 15 years ago.
He calls it the "tipping point" of history.
Malawi has long been titled the "miracle" of Africa. It has gone through floods, drought, bad economic policies, empty national maize stocks and has been on the verge of starvation and financial collapse in 2002. Surprisingly, already four years later Malawi produced enough maize to fulfill its national requirements and export some of it. Sanchez brings a simple explanation to this: Malawi joined the “Green Revolution for Africa” that UN secretary general Kofi Annan called for in 2004.
"The government and the private sector have been very much involved in bringing the change. After 2004, President Mutharika came to power and started subsidizing the distribution of mineral fertilizers and hybrid maize seeds, Malawi increased yields of the country’s staple crop, maize, by 2.6 times between 2005 and 2007. This has brought food security to millions of Malawians."
Last year Sanchez was part of a team that advised the Malawi Ministry of Finance on how to continue the subsidiary program and further alleviate poverty:
"We are on the right way - Now we have to stay on the course!"
Not everyone agrees with the fairytale Sanchez sells. GRAIN, an international non-profit organization that works to support small farmers, points out that since 2005/6, Malawi had several years of above-average rainfall. "As maize is a crop which, when grown with fertilizers, needs a great deal of water to perform, this boosted yields. So the gamble paid off, the fertilizer subsidy program responded to the good weather, and Malawi achieved surplus national maize production four years in a row," their report says.
Another clue: Foreign Kwachas and corruption
Furthermore, Chu’s country is still ruled by a corrupt government. Even optimist Sanchez acknowledges that:
"There has been severe corruption in the procurement system of fertilizers. Corruption is unfortunately something endemic to poverty."
Malawi does not produce its own fertilizers. On the global market the cost for a ton of fertilizer has doubled within the last five years. It is also highly volatile to the hunger of human and animal stomach, car tanks and speculations in the U.S., Europe and the BRICS. Every Kwacha Chu’s government spends on increasingly expensive fertilizer it cannot spend to improve infrastructure, health or the education system in the country.
It would be too easy to blame only the Malawi government for Chu’s hunger. In Mulanje, where Chu lives, almost all tea fields are owned by Eastern Produce Malawi (EPM), a subsidiary of the world’s second largest private tea company, Cameilla Plc. Chu’s parents don't own land, they work for 12$ a week on the tea plantations. Half of Malawi’s arable land is controlled by some 30,000 estates of 10–500 hectares, mostly foreign investors. Egypt has just bought large amounts of land for tobacco farms, China is in the game as well. In the GRAIN report Undule Mwakasungula, the director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation in Malawi moans:
"At the rate we are giving up our land, one wonders whether there will be any land left for the future generation."
In other words - it will be almost impossible for Chu to own land when he grows up and feed his children by self-produced crops.
A last proof: Exposed to the weather ?
The quest in finding an answer to why is Chu hungry brings us to another big phenomena: the weather. The years of good rainfalls and moderate temperatures are over. Malawi experienced over 40 weather-related disasters since the 70s. The latest occurred this year, only a few hundred kilometers away from Chu’s home. Chiu Meta, coordinator for disaster relief at the World Food Program Malawi, explains that severe floods will not only affect the 616.000 people that are in need of direct food assistance but also the price of vegetables and stable foods.
"We expect a severe drop in crop production during the next lean season. Especially the maize price is already increasing dramatically."
The FAO noted that for 2015, the early production forecast for maize in Southern Africa stands at about 21.1 million tons, 15% lower than the average of the last five years. Since January, Meta and her team are giving first-aid relief in flood-prone districts like Phalombe, Mangochi and Nsanje.
"We try to provide recover aid and compliment food assistance. We also educate the people in the regions and explain which plants to grow, so they can make some money. Often the farmers don't know better solutions, that are more resistant to drought and heavy rain."
Uneducated farmers, highly dependent on mono-cultures, are often amplifying the devastating effects of the weather. The staff at the Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology believe that diversity and the permaculture is the solution to hunger and floods. Luwayo Biswick works at KIAE as a technical adviser. In his opinion the government’s current subsidy program is not sustainable:
"The allocation of resources in agriculture should benefit communities, not enriching those in the public offices and investing in agriculture," he said in a Maziko Radio show.
Instead, he proposes that the government should invest in permaculture for economic stability and productive healthy environments. What sounds like a hippie theory is actually quite sophisticated. Restoring the forests will protect future generations from floods. Trees regulate water and strengthen the soil, unlike huge maize and tea mono-cultures that are easily washed away. Trees can also provide large amounts of diverse food.
Unfortunately, the permaculture movement does not receive a lot of funding. Unsurprisingly, big corporations are not interested in financing research studies: There is no profit to gain from it – only for people like Chu maybe. According to the statistics office of FAO, Malawi will remain in dark red on their map – the color of the worst category: More than 462,918 tons of food aid shipments per year.
For Chu it means the winter will be hard.
Annabella Stieren is a German journalist currently based in Amsterdam.