1. Risk of Two Poor Harvests Back to Back
From the farmers’ perspective, the last two years have been challenging to say the least. From December 2014 through March 2015, Malawi had several torrential rains, especially in the southern region, causing extensive flooding in the lowlands, reducing maize yields to less than 60% of their historical averages. Thus far, this year the problem has been the lack of rain. Rains came earlier this year, starting in December 2015, but they have not been consistent, with only a few soaking rains through the end of January 2016. Usually subsistence farmers plant maize after the second soaking rain of the season. Rains have been better in the north, but there is great concern in the south that if more rain does not fall soon, this year’s maize crop will be as bad, if not worse, than the 2015 crop. Around Blantyre the effects of the semi drought are not yet fully apparent—planted fields in the city limits, as well as those in the countryside, are green, and now waist to shoulder nigh, and the maize appears to be thriving. Maize is planted in every spare patch, rocky or not, hilly or flat, around Blantyre, so much so that we are invariably taken aback when finding a vacant parcel not seeded with maize. This year many remind us that the 2016 maize crop will be stunted unless there is more rain soon. Most small farms have little crop diversification—in Malawi, maize is unquestionably the crop of choice—so much so that Malawi’s national identity—and certainly its diet--is inextricably linked with maize--and the economy rises or falls upon the success of the maize harvest. Other common crops include tobacco, sugar cane, Irish and sweet potatoes, cassava, beans, and pigeon peas. These crops are frequently planted, but almost as after-thoughts, only for the purpose of supplementing the predominant maize crop. Farmers are often urged to diversify their crops to reduce dependence upon maize yields, but those pleas usually fall on deaf ears, the Malawians loathe to move away from their traditional habit of planting maize.
Were Malawi to suffer two bad maize crops back to back—the first due to too much rain, the second to too little, the consequences for the economy in general and for the health and well-being of the average Malawian would be disastrous, since so many families rely upon the maize crop to produce nsima, the staple item in most Malawians’ diet. Nsima is a polenta-type product (basically tasteless), eaten with some protein element (typically in the form of beans, chicken, fish, or beef), supplemented by a vegetable mix consisting of pumpkin leaves, lettuce, cabbage, and other greens. The less maize, the less commodities or cash in the economic system. Whenever there is a poor maize harvest, the dire effects upon the poor become progressively apparent as one gets further and further away from the most recent harvest, as subsistence farmers consume the prior year’s harvest, leaving them little to eat apart from what they can readily pick off local fruit bearing trees, including mango, avocado, passion fruit and papaya trees.
If it is a good year, subsistence farmers will bag enough 50 kg bags of maize grain to last their families until the next harvest—and perhaps even a few extra bags available for sale as a cash crop to cover costs of other food stuffs and essentials. Bad years are measured, instead, by how quickly the family exhausts the available maize reserves and how many weeks or months they are forced to go without privately harvested maize before the next harvest. The average family of four consumes roughly 12 to 16 50 kg bags of maize kernels a year, grinding as necessary the kernels into maize meal or flour at local maize mills. Poorer families consume even more maize because they cannot supplement their diets with chicken, beef, rice and other products, usually more expensive. Some families will eat some form of maize at virtually every meal of the day—a maize porridge for breakfast and nsima for lunch and dinner or, if conditions are really tight, during the one meal of the day. Even one of the popular unrefrigerated drinks—thoba—is made from maize flour.
 I am writing this toward the end of January 2016, so it is possible that the rains, though late, will still come this rainy season, and maize yields will be better than currently expected.
 But this is hardly an exact science. We have known some members to plant earlier and many to plant later.
 Maize was not introduced as a crop to sub-Saharan Africa until the mid-1800s, the crop having its historical roots in the new world.