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Malawi Performs an African Miracle, Feeding Itself From Its 'Gold Mine': The Soil

July 06, 1986|PETER WELLMAN | Associated Press

LILONGWE, Malawi — "We have no minerals. The soil is our gold mine."

With those words after independence from Britain in 1964, President Hastings Kamuzu Banda sent his people to work the land.

Today Malawi feeds itself and exports what is left over, a rarity in Africa.

It is a success story on a continent where the annual population growth rate of 3% outpaces the growth of food production, about 1% annually.

Famine Triggers Aid

A devastating famine in 1984-85 triggered a flood of aid from international donors worth an estimated $2.9 billion. But not a penny was needed by Malawi's 7 million people.

The United Nations Office for Emergency Operations in Africa says that another $881 million is needed this year, but not in Malawi.

"We are not a drain on the world's creditor nations," Malawi's acting ambassador to Zimbabwe, M. S .D. Magalasi, said in an interview. "If any African country deserves special consideration when it applies for loans, that country should be Malawi."

Banda, who is president for life, is one of the West's staunchest allies in the Third World. His is the only African country with diplomatic links with the white government of South Africa. He often has been rebuked by fellow members of the Organization of African Unity.

Accused of Oppression

The aging leader, believed to be nearly 90, is also accused by Malawian exiles of waging a ruthless campaign against political opponents, including assassinations and detentions without trial.

While African and Western diplomats and international aid agencies privately express disquiet about such allegations, they uniformly praise Banda's "Malawi miracle."

An efficient civil service guarantees that peasant farmers get seeds, fertilizers and tools in time for each planting season. Attractive government-fixed prices for food and cash crops ensure bountiful harvests. Water is available in all villages. And a well-maintained road network means that crops can get quickly to market.

Banda also is the minister of agriculture.

Agriculture employs 85% of the population and accounts for two-fifths of the gross domestic product.

Commercial Estates

Large commercial agricultural estates, some foreign owned, earned 70% of Malawi's 1985 export income of $242.5 million.

Small farmers occupy three-quarters of the land in this landlocked, Pennsylvania-sized nation of mountains, lush valleys and one of Africa's biggest natural lakes, Lake Malawi.

Typical of Malawi's farmers is Benedict Malunga, 75, who has a wife, seven sons and three daughters. He grows corn, sweet potatoes, beans and peas on his 15-acre plot. Some is grown for the family, but much of it is sold to the state-run Agricultural Development and Marketing Corp. and to a nearby village market.

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