Analyzing the Root Causes of Food Insecurity in Niger and Malawi

Despite massive improvements in technology and economic productivity in the 21st century, many nations today remain incapable of addressing their citizens’ basic needs. Food insecurity in Niger and Malawi represents a complicated, interdependent phenomenon that can be explained by analyzing the anthropogenic and natural influences on each country’s domestic food supply. The comparable situations in Niger and Malawi reveal that, while natural factors can certainly hinder food production, famine and food insecurity are primarily socially constructed and tied closely to economic development. Rapid population growth and inequality, anthropogenic climate change, and political instability are the primary culprits responsible for food insecurity across Niger, Malawi, and many other developing nations. 

Niger’s population is around 22 million and boasts the world’s highest annual population growth at 3.8% (Razafimandimby & Swaroop, 2020). This translates into roughly seven children per woman. The widespread prevalence of child marriage, sexual abuse, and consequently, early childbearing, all of which are rooted in Niger’s entrenched patriarchal society, have contributed significantly to the nation’s booming population (Razafimandimby & Swaroop, 2020). Nigerien social services are chronically underfunded because of poor taxation infrastructure and have struggled to meet the demand for a growing population. This problem will only grow more pervasive; by 2050, Niger’s population is estimated to reach an astounding 50 million people (Potts, Gidi, Campbell, & Zureick, 2011). 

Child marriage is seen culturally as a way of enhancing social status and offering potential economic opportunity, but this is not the case. Women forced into early marriages experience restricted educational and economic opportunities, often being placed in a traditional role with duties in line with motherhood. The roots of Niger’s gender inequality run deep: The UN’s Education Index places Niger dead last, primarily due to widespread female illiteracy (Giovetti, 2019). Households led by women are more vulnerable to food insecurity than their male counterparts, primarily due to an educational and hierarchical imbalance (Zakari, Ying & Song, 2014). Education disparities have also had severe ramifications for the nation’s development. Niger is ranked 187th (out of 188 countries) on the UN’s Human Development Index (Action Against Hunger, n.d.). Nigerien men are 65% more likely to be literate than women (Giovetti, 2019); the consequence of this is an economy lacking in social capital and productive inputs. Restricting women’s economic opportunities carries an immense societal burden and adversely contributes to Niger’s development, which is explicitly linked to food security, famine, and poverty. Higher education among Nigerien women is directly linked to lower stunting levels and greater nutrition (Giovetti, 2019). This demonstrates the significance of gender inequality as a barrier along the path to food security. Roughly 20% of Niger’s population cannot meet their food needs, with women being disproportionately impacted (World Food Program, n.d).

Chronic underutilization of social capital and high population growth has made it extremely challenging for Niger to finance the investments in food security, infrastructure, healthcare, and education that a booming population demands. This phenomenon is referred to as a ‘demographic trap,’ in which rapid population growth stunts economic development and poverty alleviation by spreading government services too thinly across a region (Razafimandimby & Swaroop, 2020). 

Like Niger, Malawi is experiencing a demographic trap, low education rates, inequality, and an inadequate social safety net, all of which hamper the nation’s development and contribute to food insecurity. Malawi’s population sits just below 20 million, with an annual growth rate of 2.7% (Malawi Population, 2020). Both countries feature overwhelmingly rural populations that rely almost solely on agriculture for their economic prospects. For Niger, millet and sorghum are the staple commodities; for Malawi, maize is most important (Kamwendo, 2019). 

Population growth in Niger and Malawi has caused average farm sizes to dwindle, resulting in more intensive agricultural practices in an attempt to recover lost yields. Unfortunately, intensive farming has had the opposite effect, degrading soil quality, and further reducing yield sizes. As much as 40% of Malawi’s agricultural land now has soil too acidic for quality yields (Kamwendo, 2019). Families in both Niger and Malawi, desperate to make up the lost money from low farm yields, have turned to deforestation for extra income, which hastens soil erosion and acidification, further damaging agricultural yields and making the land more prone to flooding and other natural disasters. 

Climate change is another barrier to achieving food security and development in Niger and Malawi. Neither of these countries are industrialized, meaning their contributions to anthropogenic climate change are relatively insignificant. Nevertheless, their geography makes them more susceptible to the impacts of climate change. Both countries are characterized by warm to hot temperatures, degraded soils, water shortages, and frequently disrupted agriculture-based economies, all of which are exacerbated by a warming climate. 

Niger is located in the Sahel region in Africa, home to 50 million people dependent on agriculture in an area the UN suspects is as much as 80% degraded from climate change (Giovetti, 2019). This region had little arable land to begin with, highlighting the importance of conserving what little remains. Roughly three-quarters of Niger is located in the Sahara Desert, where erratic rainfall and climate-induced droughts commonly pose trouble for farmers. The impact of droughts is further compounded by Niger’s severe shortage of irrigation infrastructure, leaving farmers’ livelihoods at the mercy of increasingly unpredictable weather (Giovetti, 2019). 

Malawi’s farmers overwhelmingly rely on maize production, which depends on a single rainy season throughout the year. Much like Niger and other developing nations, Malawi lacks irrigation infrastructure, despite having freshwater resources. The dire impacts of climate change on Malawi’s agriculture have been demonstrated multiple times in the past 20 years. In 2001, a drought triggered a severe food crisis, resulting in 30% of Malawi’s population needing food assistance (Kamwendo, 2019). In 2015, droughts followed by flooding once again significantly cut the country’s maize production, causing more than one-third of Malawi’s population to require food assistance (Kamwendo, 2019). Climate change also threatens the reliability of the Malawi electrical grid. In 2015, droughts crippled the nation’s hydroelectric stations, which provide 90% of the nation’s electricity needs (Kamwendo, 2019). This resulted in widespread blackouts and further irrigation complications. The increasing prevalence of climate change-related disasters means that Malawi will likely continue to experience unstable electricity generation in the near future. This will have severe developmental consequences for the nation.

Additionally, in just the last decade, almost 60% of Malawi’s second-largest body of water, Lake Chilwa, dried up, displacing the livelihoods of over 7000 fishermen (Mcbrams, 2018). Climate change reduces yields from all sorts of productive economic activities, in this case limiting a country’s domestic food supply, increasing food costs, and leading to greater food insecurity among a population sensitive to price changes. Purchasing power per capita is quite low in both Niger and Malawi, meaning that even small increases in food costs can lead to sizeable increases in food insecurity. Niger and Malawi are also landlocked and lack transportation infrastructure, which disadvantages the countries logistically when responding to climate-related food shortages, whether due to drought, locust swarms, or cattle disease. Climate change is creating scarcity in Niger and Malawi, a recipe for conflict when combined with a growing population and widespread inequality (Giovetti, 2019). Both of these nations have experienced rising tensions among farmers as a result of increasingly scarce conditions. 

Niger, Malawi, and countless other underdeveloped countries have a shared experience of European colonization and, subsequently, decolonization and political instability. The imposition of colonial political systems led many countries to develop institutions that lacked public legitimacy. Malawi and Niger were affected by the Scramble for Africa, which saw European powers divide the continent into colonies at the start of the 20th century (The Scramble for Africa, n.d.). Niger received independence from France in 1960 (Niger’s Independence Day, n.d.), and Malawi received independence from Britain in 1963 (Malawi, 2019). 

Niger’s decolonization corresponded with the beginning of its massive population boom and an immediate struggle for democracy. Unfortunately, from decolonization until 1991, Niger was controlled by a single party military rule, depressing economic growth (Giovetti, 2019). Since 1991, Niger has experienced multiple coups, switching between democratic and authoritarian governments (Giovetti, 2019). Niger’s unstable political environment has severely impacted the nation’s development and, by extension, food security. 

Private investors and foreign governments looking to make partnerships (of nearly any kind) tend to seek out nations with stable and reliable governments, such as Canada, the United Kingdom, or New Zealand. Political instability breeds uncertainty, significantly reducing the attractiveness of a nation from an investment perspective. Niger’s authoritarianism has degraded the nation’s global relations, which is particularly important for land-locked countries relying on single commodity economies. Additionally, authoritarianism has opened up Niger’s institutions to corruption, cronyism, and fiscal mismanagement, which in turn perpetuates political instability and poor investing conditions. 

Malawi also experiences political instability as a leftover relic of colonization. Bingu Wa Mutharika, the former President of Malawi who served from 2004-2012, was democratically elected but grew autocratic over time, enabled by Malawi’s weak public institutions. Bingu Wa’s presidency was initially regarded as a success, thanks to his government’s rollout of small farm subsidies, which produced food surpluses (Tafirenyika, 2013). The subsidies successfully lowered poverty rates across Malawi but failed to improve the nation’s gender disparity and ultimately proved fiscally unsustainable (Karamba & Winters, 2015). After his re-election in 2009, Mutharika’s Presidency quickly became more controversial. The farm subsidies that had once produced food surpluses began choking Malawi’s budget (comprising 16% at their peak), requiring their immediate scaling back (Tafirenyika, 2013). Mutharika’s second term was also marred by spending controversies, cronyism, and nepotism. In 2009, he purchased a private jet for $13.26 million, which caused swift domestic and international backlash (Tafirenyika, 2013). The international community (which comprises a significant part of Malawi’s government funding) froze all financial aid to Malawi following Mutharika’s blatant fiscal mismanagement, resulting in a hard currency shortage and subsequently, a national fuel shortage (Tafirenyika, 2013). In 2011, Mutharika began expelling party members who viewed him as becoming arrogant and autocratic, and began promoting his brother, Peter Mutharika, as his successor (Tafirenyika, 2013). 

Bingu Wa’s shift towards autocracy worried the international community, causing a mass exodus of donors from Malawi’s government budget. Malawi’s political instability meant that, for the most part, the nation was reliant on international aid rather than foreign direct investment. As international aid dried up, so did the anti-poverty social programs introduced by Bingu Wa Mutharika (Tafirenyika, 2013). Former colonies often struggle with weak public institutions prone to manipulation, corruption, and abuse from authoritarians looking to advance their own interests. Authoritarian leaders often legislate poor public policy and undermine a nation’s investment atmosphere, both of which damage domestic development prospects and contribute to food insecurity and poverty (Merelli, 2019). 

By analyzing the impacts of rapid population growth and inequality, climate change, and political instability on food security in Niger and Malawi, a clear link can be drawn between developmental factors and food security, demonstrating the socially constructivist nature of famine. Rapid population growth dilutes social services’ effectiveness, anthropogenic climate change weakens the economic prospects of agriculture-based economies, and political instability leads to more frequent corruption and a business atmosphere antithetical to private lenders’ interests. These factors have been crucial in stunting Niger and Malawi’s economic development, consequently creating greater levels of food insecurity. This is not to say that natural factors do not impact development and food insecurity; rather, their contribution to the problem is simply overshadowed by society’s ‘ social, economic, and political contributions.


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Published by Brett Porter

Comms. guy with a passion for public policy and responsible corporate governance. Conservation advocate. Plant person.

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