Presence Country
Food Security Outlook

Acute food insecurity outcomes to improve with prospects for an average 2016/17 production

February 2017

IPC 2.0 Acute Food Insecurity Phase

1: Minimal
2: Stressed
3: Crisis
4: Emergency
5: Famine
Would likely be at least one phase worse without current or programmed humanitarian assistance

IPC 2.0 Acute Food Insecurity Phase

1: Minimal
2: Stressed
3+: Crisis or higher
Would likely be at least one phase worse without
current or programmed humanitarian assistance

IPC 2.0 Acute Food Insecurity Phase

Presence countries:
1: Minimal
2: Stressed
3: Crisis
4: Emergency
5: Famine
Remote monitoring
1: Minimal
2: Stressed
3+: Crisis or higher
Would likely be at least one phase worse without
current or programmed humanitarian assistance

Key Messages

  • Approximately 6.7 million people, about half of Malawi’s rural population, will receive assistance in February. Food insecure populations in central and southern Malawi will face Stressed (IPC Phase 2!) acute food insecurity outcomes, in the presence of humanitarian assistance. These outcomes are expected to continue in March, during the peak lean season. Were the humanitarian response not present, these areas would experience Crisis (IPC Phase 3) and Emergency (IPC Phase 4) outcomes. 

  • After March, outcomes should improve to Minimal (IPC Phase 1) for most areas as households start consuming food from their own production. However, households in the Lower Shire livelihood zone, a chronically food insecure area, will be Stressed (IPC Phase 2) because they will not have fully recovered from the impact of two consecutive years of drought and the significant reduction in cotton production.

  • Reductions in incomes from cash crops are expected this season due to a decline in the area planted by farmers. Many farmers significantly reduced the area planted for tobacco and cotton because of consecutive poor marketing years for these crops, as well as losses incurred from two consecutive years of drought. This is expected to lead to a decrease in incomes at the macroeconomic and household level this season. 

  • Food prices are decreasing earlier and much sharper than expected and this trend will likely continue through May. Factors contributing to these decreases include the large rural population receiving humanitarian assistance, which is reducing pressure on the markets, as well as the normal and above-normal levels of rainfall received this season.

National Overview

Current Situation

Rainfall and Agricultural Seasonal Progress

According to field observations and reports by the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (DCCMS) and Ministry of Agriculture, southern and central parts of Malawi recorded an early start of rains for seasonal planting. Areas in the central and southern regions received moderate rains in the October to December period.

Between January and February rainfall amounts ranged from moderate to heavy. Bulletins published by the DCCMS reported that in January 2017, the southern and central parts of Malawi received rainfall amounts under 100 mm in a dekad. In February, southern and central parts of Malawi received rainfall amounts exceeding 200 mm in a dekad. In January and February, crops were in the late vegetative, tasseling, and cob formation states in the central and southern regions.

Contrary to the rest of the country, areas in northern Malawi registered some delays in the onset of the main rains and very low rainfall amounts were received during the October to December period. Eventually, the start of the main rains began around January. In January, the northern region continued to receive below-average rainfall, averaging at about 62 mm per dekad. In February, the rainfall average per dekad was 83 mm. Crops in the northern region are still in the early to mid-vegetative stage of growth.


The results of survey completed in November/December 2016 using Standardized Monitoring and Assessment of Relief and Transitions (SMART) methodology have been released. This survey was part of the MVAC seasonal assessment conducted during the lean season. When compared to the results from the SMART survey conducted during the start of the post-harvest period in May 2016, the results show a significant deterioration of the nutrition situation across most zones. The overall national weighted prevalence of Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) was estimated as 4.1 percent (95% CI: 3.5 - 4.9) in November/December 2016, as compared to 2.5 percent (95% CI: 2.0 – 3.3) in May 2016. Although the national prevalence is below the GAM threshold of 5 percent (according to the WHO classification), the GAM prevalence was above the 5 percent threshold in the Lower Shire, Shire Highlands, Thyolo-Mulanje Tea Estates, and Lake Chirwa Phalombe Plain livelihood zones (Figure 1).  

Food Security Conditions

As part of the recent SMART survey conducted during the lean season in November/December 2016, data for additional food security indicators including the Household Hunger Scale (HHS), Household Dietary Diversity Score (HDDS), Food Consumption Score (FCS), and Reduced Coping Strategies Index (rCSI) were collected. According to the HHS results, half of the population surveyed were categorized as experiencing “moderate” or “severe” hunger. 

The HDDS results showed medium consumption of diversified diets in all the livelihood zones with a huge dependency on cereals and vegetables, and very low uptake of other food groups such as eggs, milk, flesh products, roots, and tubers. Overall, households in all zones registered household dietary diversity ranging from 4.5 to 5.3, which falls within the IFPRI threshold of 4.5 to 6 (<4.5 = low dietary diversity; 4.5-6 = medium dietary diversity >6 = high dietary diversity). Although none of the zones registered low dietary diversity, no zone registered high dietary.

Nearly half of the households surveyed were categorized as having “poor” food consumption scores. Overall and weighted food consumption scores deteriorated between May 2016 and November/December 2016. Areas in Lake Chilwa-Phalombe Plain livelihood zone registered the largest increase. In this area, populations experiencing “borderline” and “poor” food consumption rose from 5.2 percent in May to 36 percent in November/December 2016 (Figure 2). The rCSI results indicated that negative coping was lowest in the northern districts of Chitipa, Karonga, Rumphi, and Mzimba. Negative coping was highest in the Phalombe-Lake Chilwa districts of Phalombe, Zomba, and Machinga. According to WFP mVAM reports, negative coping has remained high since the start of the consumption season in April 2016. The most recent rCSI results revealed a higher level of negative coping in comparison to past EFSA surveys conducted by the WFP and MVAC in 2013 and 2014.  

Very poor, poor, and some middle income households across most of the country are receiving humanitarian assistance to meet their basic food needs. Households that are not receiving humanitarian assistance are managing to purchase food with the income that they are earning from casual labor and the sale of firewood and charcoal. Some middle and better off households are managing to purchase food with income through livestock sales.

Approximately 6.7 million people will receive assistance in February. Food insecure populations in central and southern Malawi will face Stressed (IPC Phase 2!) acute food insecurity outcomes, in the presence of humanitarian assistance. These outcomes are expected to continue through March. Were the humanitarian response not present, these areas would experience Crisis (IPC Phase 3) and Emergency (IPC Phase 4) outcomes. 

Internal Trade and Market Functioning

Despite Malawi reporting a maize a huge maize deficit at the start of the 2016/17 consumption year (over 900,000 MT), the country is experiencing favorable food availability especially for the maize staple in both private and ADMARC markets. The rollout of humanitarian assistance to almost half of the rural population, some formal and informal imports, and the prepositioning of maize in ADMARC depots have all led to high maize supplies in most areas of the country which have in turn led to lower demand especially in southern Malawi.      

Trader interviews in January 2017 revealed higher than normal informal imports of maize from Zambia, Tanzania, and northern Mozambique. Market monitoring has also revealed an infiltration of Zambian maize flour in markets across the country, which is the most preferred commodity by consumers.

By the end of January, Malawi had imported about 150,000 MT formally, and an estimated 200,000 MT informally. With an average production season expected for 2016/17 and some carryover stocks in ADMARC markets and among private traders, Malawi will unlikely import more maize formally, and informal imports will be minimal.

As Malawi prepares for the next consumption season, the SGR will likely remain with carryover stocks of about 30,000 MT, ADMARC with about 100,000, while private traders may also have carryover stocks ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 MT.

Maize Prices

Current national average prices for the maize staple in retail markets have remained stable in the January to February period. Despite the stability, prices have remained very high as compared to same time last year and the five year average. National average prices for January were 111 percent higher than five year average and 25 percent greater than January 2016 prices. Drivers for the stability in prices at a time when prices normally register steep increases have been; the roll out of humanitarian assistance to over 6.7 million people thereby reducing demand in southern Malawi and dampening prices; atypical large informal maize grain inflows from neighboring countries, currently estimated at 200,000 MT and improved maize supply levels in both local and ADMARC markets. 

National Assumptions

The Food Security Outlook for February to September 2017 is based on the following national-level assumptions:

2016/17 seasonal rainfall forecast: Improved rainfall performance was recorded across the country from the beginning of January 2017. The rains have significantly improved pasture availability, water resources, and soil moisture while supporting the growth and development of crops. The forecast by the Malawi Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (DCCMS) for the greater part of the country expects above normal rainfall through the end of the season in March 2017. Other regional and probabilistic forecasts indicate a high likelihood of average to above-average rainfall. FEWS NET is assuming that most  areas  in  southern  and  central Malawi  are likely  to  receive  normal to above  normal  rainfall amounts of rainfall for the remainder of the season, while  average rainfall amounts are expected in northern region.

2016/17 maize crop production: A GeoWRSI analysis for the remainder of the season was done based on the last 15 seasons and indicated that overall rainfall in Malawi will likely be good and very good for crop production, however this does not take into consideration other non-water-shortage related factors including pests and disease, waterlogging and leaching, and the availability of inputs. While an average to above average production season would have been expected based on rainfall forecasts, FEWS NET assumes that national food production is expected to be average (above 3 million MT as compared to about 2.3 million MT last year maize equivalent) due other factors that will negatively impact production. These include a lack of inputs leading to high number of farmers using recycled seeds, registering lower fertilizer use, and as well as some field in localized areas suffering from pest attacks as described below.

Seed availability and channels, access to fertilizer: This year the government reduced the number of households benefiting from the farm Input Subsidy program from 1.5 million in the 2015/16 production season to 900,000 households in the 2016/17 production season. FEWS NET’s assessment in January found that most of the private traders operating in the rural areas had stocked only one type fertilizer, basal dressing fertilizer and that they could not easily replenish stocks so farmers had to travel long distances to the nearby towns to purchase fertilizer. In a year when favorable weather conditions would otherwise lead to above-average production, FEWS NET assumes that production of main food crops will be average this year due to reduced access to inputs such as seeds and fertilizers.

Green harvest availability: Information about when most farmers planted crops varies, however the DCMMS bulletin announced that the effective onset of rains occurred during the 3rd dekad of November. FEWS NET assumes that household access to green harvests for consumption will occur between late-February and late-March. Most households in northern Malawi planted between early-January and mid-January which will delay their access to green consumption and main harvests. Apart from access to green maize, households will also have access to other foods such as sweet potatoes, beans, groundnuts, and pumpkins. In the northern region, household access to green consumption may occur in April since most areas were planted later than normal in that region.

2016/17 cash crop production: Area planted for tobacco is 40 percent lower than average, while the area planted for cotton is about 45 percent below average. During community interviews in mid-January, FEWS NET confirmed that less farmers were growing cotton and tobacco this season due to the lack of resources needed to invest in production. Other reasons that community members cited for this decline include: they could not access the necessary inputs, the delayed start of the season also destroyed tobacco nurseries, and a general lack of interest in producing these crops due to the poor selling prices that farmers encountered in past marketing season. FEWS NET assumes that 2016/17 cash crop production will be below average. Since these crops involve the hiring of labor, this decline could reduce earned income for all wealth groups in tobacco reliant livelihood zones (KAS, MZS, WRM, and PHA). Tenants that rely on tobacco estates for their livelihoods will also be affected.

Migratory pests: The Ministry of Agriculture reported that African armyworm and fall armyworm attacks were reported in 5 out of the 8 Agriculture Development Divisions (Subnational agriculture boundary areas), three being in southern Malawi and two in central Malawi. FEWS NET assumes that it is unlikely that the pests can cause serious damage to crops. According to the information compiled by the Ministry of Agriculture, the impact of migratory pests especially African armyworms and fall armyworms were mostly found to be moderate on this year’s crop production. The Ministry has responded by distributing pesticides to affected areas which upon spraying are managing to contain the infestation. With the crop at an advanced vegetative stage in most affected areas and the rains having increased in intensity.

Off-farm labor wages, demand, and supply: Early assessments are showing that households will likely realize lower incomes from crop sales. FEWS NET assumes that off-farm labor will likely range from slightly below normal to average across the country. With an average season forecast, labor wages are expected to be at normal levels.

Livestock conditions and prices: According to the Ministry of Agriculture, livestock conditions which had deteriorated in the past two seasons will improve, along with pasture conditions, as normal to above normal rainfall levels continue. Small livestock holdings for very poor and poor households will remain lower than normal due to overselling during the lean periods. Based on reports from the Ministry of Agriculture and household interviews conducted by FEWS NET, before the start of humanitarian assistance, livestock prices decreased by as much as half of normal levels. After the implementation of humanitarian assistance, prices bounced back to normal levels and households no longer engaged in desperate sales. FEWS NET assumes that livestock prices will be normal throughout the outlook period, and that livestock and pasture conditions will improve for the remainder of the rainy season.

Pre-and post-harvest national maize stock availability: Most of the SGR stocks which are mostly being drawn down for humanitarian assistance will be low at amounts lower than 20,00 MT. FEWS NET assessments and official reports have shown that ADMARC maize sells have been very low with many consumers preferring to buy from private traders whose prices are lower than that of ADMARC. This has resulted in ADMARC retaining most of its maize stocks across the country. FEWS NET assumes that during the February to May period, Malawi will still have official stocks of over 100,000 MT owing to unused stocks in ADMARC markets. The stocks will further be boosted by an average harvest of near normal levels in the May to June period, which will bring national stocks to normal levels.

Level of pre-and post-harvest household food stocks: FEWS NET assumes that household food stock levels will remain low across all wealth groups in the pre-harvest period and the deficits will only be off-set by the humanitarian assistance for most of the poor, very poor, and some middle households, while stocks for better-off households will be offset by market purchases. Households which are not benefitting from humanitarian assistance will have very low or no stocks in the February to May period and will rely on modest purchases mostly in small quantities after raising incomes from labor and petty trade, as well as through selling livestock. Households across all wealth groups will access average food stocks especially the staple maize in the June to September period as they access this season’s harvests.

Integrated maize price projections: FEWS NET assumes maize prices will start to decline in late February and late March when households in the central and southern region start consuming green foods. Projections based on FEWS NET technical analysis are showing that the prices will start to decrease in the March to May period from about MWK 249/kg in February to about MWK 150/kg in May 2017. Prices will then start increasing gradually to a high of about MWK 200/kg in September 2017 following seasonal trends. Another main driver of the projected price drop is the prospect of good production due to positive start of rains which has led to an increase in amounts of maize released onto the market thereby improving market supplies. Despite the price stability and decreases, prices will still trend at over 150 percent above the five-year average and over 50 percent above the February to May 2016 period, due to the lingering effects of consecutive poor harvests.

Pre-and Post-harvest Informal trade flows: FEWS NET assumes that pre-harvest and post-harvest informal cross border trade maize inflow levels will decline and be lower than normal. With the markets forces having satisfied market demand without huge formal imports and with falling prices acting as a disincentive for private traders, maize imports will be very below average to a projected 60 percent of normal throughout the outlook period. With an average production season expected in the current agricultural season and some carryover stocks in ADMARC markets and among private traders, Malawi will unlikely import more maize formally while informal imports will be minimal.

labor wages, demand, and supply: While October to January marks the peak of the agricultural season and when labor levels increase, low incomes (due to two consecutive drought seasons) among the middle and better off households who offer labor, in addition to lower than normal investment in cash crop production, has reduced labor availability. FEWS NET assessments and Ministry of Agriculture reports have indicated that most farmers have reduced or totally abandoned investment into the main cash crops of cotton and tobacco. Normally, the cotton and tobacco farming contributes significant amounts of labor to the poorer households. Reductions in tobacco and cotton farming will result in reduced labor demand for weeding, harvesting and processing. FEWS NET assumes on-farm labor availability will likely be slightly below normal throughout the outlook period. Agricultural labor availability will likely reduce by about 25 percent. Despite low labor demand, labor wages will be normal as households will realize average harvests which are characterized by less desperation and thereby empower those seeking labor to negotiate for better wages.

National formal & informal maize imports/exports: FEWS NET assessments in January have found that most local markets and ADMARC markets have adequate maize stocks which will last up to the next harvest. Trader interviews have revealed higher than normal informal imports of maize from Zambia and Tanzania and infiltration of additional maize from northern Mozambique winter cropping estimated at about 200,000 MT. FEWS NET assumes that national availability for the maize staple will likely be favorable in the February to April period due to reduced demand on the markets owing to the rollout of humanitarian assistance to 6.7 million households representing about half of the rural population, suspected huge informal imports of maize and maize meal, an infusion of maize from an irrigation effort,  unused stocks in ADMARC outlets of about 100,000 MT, and contributions from green consumption for late February to early March. Availability will further be improved in the May to September period as an average harvest is expected.

Most Likely Food Security Outcomes

February-May 2017: Food security outcomes in southern and central Malawi will be Stressed (IPC Phase 2!), in the presence of humanitarian assistance. Without assistance, these areas would experience Crisis (IPC Phase 3) and Emergency (IPC Phase 4) outcomes. The majority of households in the northern region will face Minimal (IPC Phase 1) food security outcomes. From mid-to-late February, households in the central and southern regions will begin supplementing their humanitarian assistance with green foods from their own production. FEWS NET projects that households in the north will also be obtaining their food from their own production, but will also need to supplement this with market purchases of food as well. Food security and nutrition indicators are expected to register improvements in the February to May period as households begin to access food from their own harvests.

June-September 2017: Around May and June, national average prices for the maize will likely reduce to about MWK 150/kg, their lowest in the past two years. The prices will then start increasing (according to seasonal trends) and peaking at about MWK 200/kg in September, which is about 50 percent above the five-year average. Labor demand for households in the south will be significantly reduced to about 30-50 percent of normal due to huge reductions in cash crop incomes. Households in the central region will experience moderate labor demand and opportunities will be reduced by 15-25 percent due to reductions in tobacco production, which offers the bulk of labor in this region. In the north, households will likely experience normal levels of labor demand. Labor wages will likely be at normal levels since most households will be accessing food from their own production, and will not engage in labor as a desperate coping measure.

Between June and September, food security outcomes in the southern region will improve and transition to Stressed (IPC Phase 2) as households begin to access food from their own production. However, due to the low availability of crops for sale households will experience reduced access to incomes, thereby restricting access to essential basic non-food purchases. In the central region, food security will improve to Minimal (IPC Phase 1) as households consume food from their own production and have access to income from crop sales for the purchase of essential non-food items.   Areas in the north will also face Minimal (IPC Phase 1) outcomes as they consume food from this year’s harvests. Improved nutrition and food security indicators will be maintained along similar levels as in the February to May period described above. 

For more information on the outlook for specific areas of concern, please click the download button at the top of the page for the full report.

About Scenario Development

To project food security outcomes, FEWS NET develops a set of assumptions about likely events, their effects, and the probable responses of various actors. FEWS NET analyzes these assumptions in the context of current conditions and local livelihoods to arrive at a most likely scenario for the coming six months. Learn more here.


The Famine Early Warning Systems Network is a leading provider of early warning and analysis on food insecurity. Created by USAID in 1985 to help decision-makers plan for humanitarian crises, FEWS NET provides evidence-based analysis on some 34 countries. Implementing team members include NASA, NOAA, USDA, and USGS, along with Chemonics International Inc. and Kimetrica. Read more about our work.